The Princess and the Fisherman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


In a mystical kingdom far far away, the resourceful and determined Ephesus attempts to fulfill a dangerous quest and win the love of the beautiful Elisa, who tries to save herself from more than a
few enemies and earn his love in return.

Submitted: February 22, 2018

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Submitted: February 22, 2018

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Once upon a time, in a kingdom long ago, there was a powerful king named Anphus who lived in a golden castle on the other side of a mountain. He had long dark hair, bronze skin and terrifying green eyes. His spirited daughter, Princess Elisa, was imprisoned within the castle’s highest tower to guard her from the world. Like her father, Elisa had dark features but her eyes were blue and and her heart was kind. King Anphus had lost his lovely Queen, Ryinra, years before, but the cause of her death was kept secret.  He ruled over a small, prosperous kingdom; but his subjects all lived in fear of his heinous wrath, as his rage was legendary and his punishments for dishonor infamous. The King beheaded the soldiers he found disgraceful and burned the fields of farmers who could not supply their crops. His soldiers stole away peasant girls who refused their advances and drowned fisherman who did not fill their King’s quota. One such fisherman was named Ephesus; he was kind, gracious and enjoyed his work, yet he too held disdain for the king. But, the fisherman also harbored a secret desire for adventure, fueled by an intense, deep love for the King’s sequestered daughter.

The two had met briefly long ago, at that time in life when youth is barely grasping at adulthood, between childhood and independence. They’d attended a great festival celebrating Queen Ryinra’s birthday and the village had been filled with music, food and drink lasting through the night; men and women wore colorful masks with lavish costumes and danced to lyrical music echoing through the forest. Ephesus had attended the celebration hoping to compete in a great tournament, pitting wit against brawn in a contest of skill at arms. Unfortunately, the fisherman had little training in combat then and earned black and blue bruises for his ambition, falling from his horse disgraced in the jousting tournament. That evening, Ephesus was nursing his wounds and standing on a hill far from the festival, overlooking the view. To his surprise, a young girl with dark hair and luminous blue eyes walked over to him and smiled. She was clothed as a servant in a plain brown dress and black cloak.

“Hello.” Ephesus said. He smiled at her with crooked teeth, knocked free by his own horse.

“Hello.” Elisa replied. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s nothing.” Ephesus slapped a cold steak on his blackened eye and sighed.

“At least you made it out ok.” Elisa said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ephesus.” he replied. “I live in the village. My father is...was, a fisherman. What is your name?”

“My name is...Ellie.” the girl replied. “I live out in the fields. My family tends the sheep.”

The two talked back and forth for awhile, looking out beyond the hills, hearing the echoes of the cheering crowds and festive music. Then, Elisa turned towards Ephesus and winced at the sight of his eye. “I’m sorry you were hurt. I’ve always hated these tournaments.”

“Why?” Ephesus interjected. “The men ride astride their horses, charging into battle with swords drawn and people cheering and the ladies throwing flowers at him if he wins. Sounds great to me.”





 

“Yes, but those men have a choice.” Elisa replied. “They can do something great. I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Ephesus asked.

Elisa was quiet before she answered. “My father is forcing me to follow...his way. He says I will grow up to become like him. But he’s a terrible man. And I can’t disobey him...” She trailed off.

“That’s...that’s awful.” Ephesus replied. “I’m sorry. I...well…”

“Go on.” Elisa told him

“My father wasn’t so grand either. He taught me his trade, sure, but fishing is all I ever got to do. I  never even got to scrap against other boys. That’s why I competed in the tournament today. So I could make something of myself. Surely, your father would understand you wanting that too.”

“But I can’t defy him. He’s too...he’s-”

“Who?” Ephesus interjected.

Elisa again held her silence, staring up at the stars. But then Ephesus looked and saw Elisa was wearing a gold chain emblazoned with a ruby pendant and jade stones. His eyes bulged, realizing the truth and he knelt before the girl.

“Your Highness! Your father is the-” Ephesus’s lips were stopped as Elisa swooped down putting her hand over his mouth. The two blushed violently before the girl spoke again, looking wildly in all directions.

“Please don’t say anything. I’m sorry. I have to go.” She turned away about to leave, but Ephesus grabbed her hand. As they touched under the moonless sky, storm clouds gathered in the distance and thunder rumbled. Elisa gave him a wistful smile and gave him from her pocket a handkerchief embroidered with the royal crest. “You fought well today. Remember that.” She turned, heading back into the woods.

“Wait!” Ephesus called. “Then, to his shock, a single word shot from his lips: “Elisa!”

Elisa turned, her heart pounding when he said her true name.

He said to her, “M’lady, you do have a choice. Choose...yourself.”

Elisa simply stared at him with those large, luminous blue eyes.

“I hope to see you again, Your Highness.” Ephesus told her.

“And I you.” she softly replied.

As Elisa made her way into the wood, Ephesus called back to her: “And I promise, m’lady, your secret is safe  with me.”

Elisa only smiled as a twinge of sadness crossed her eyes before disappearing into the night. Years later, Queen Ryinra was dead and the land lived in fear of its tyrannical king. As for Ephesus, he grew up fishing and sailing on the lake at sunrise, watching the golden light reflect off the mountain fortress. He believed meeting the princess was fated by the stars and dreamt of the day when he would see her again; when he could save her. He also secretly worked at mastering the art of combat so he would protect what was his.



 

One fateful day, the princess secretly sent a servant with a heavy bag of stones to the village, which was on the other side of the mountain. As the entire town gathered in the square, the servant dutifully delivered the message from the maiden: I am desperate for freedom. The King’s days are numbered. Any man who can lift this bag of stones, cross the realm and lay them at my doorstep may wed me. Now, the mountain that bordered the King’s palace was no mere mountain. It kissed the sky and penetrated the clouds. The base was rooted in the part of the kingdom that saw many storms as well as savage beasts and snowy blizzards. It also lay at the edge of a forest of red trees that bordered a cool and clear river. Here, imprisoned on the other side of the stone castle, the princess awaited her champion. Many a man in the village tried his luck at lifting the heavy bag of stones, with most believing the challenge too great; but not even the town's strongest warrior could lift it off the ground.

Ephesus watched day after day as each man stepped forward to see if he could lift the bag of stones. Even though the chance to see Elisa again tugged at his heartstrings, Ephesus repressed the desire to take the stones, adamant that he was unworthy. What chance did a common fisherman like have to save a beautiful princess? Then, one day, as yet another man tried to lift the bag, Ephesus stood watching. Sneaking amidst the crowds, the messenger who’d brought the princess’s challenge secretly dropped into Ephesus’s a note that read: Make your choice.

As the sun began to set, crowds of drunken stronger noblemen laughed at again another failure. Soon, they turned on the common fisherman, jesting that he too had no chance. As their voices rose against him, Ephesus’s impulsive anger got the best of him, and he cried out to the townsfolk: “See here! I will take the stones!”

As the crowd watched, falling over themselves with laughter, Ephesus stepped forward. A dark storm soon rose over the mountain with the black clouds sweeping across the sky. In an instant, the fisherman effortlessly slung the bag over his shoulders, with his back bent from the weight. The laughter died. With his bag of stones on his back, a sack of bread on his hip and his fishing hook in his hand, Ephesus resolved to make the slow, painful ascent through the woods, over the river and up the mountain towards Princess Elisa. As the sun set in the west, Ephesus crossed into the dark and twisted forest and was soon lost. The numerous halls of trees twisted into a dizzying labyrinth that tangled and torrented the poor fisherman. His bag of stones weighed heavily on his back and night fell. Ephesus’s heart rattled with adrenaline and he started a fire to keep warm. But as the fire began to glow, a hooded figure wearing a red cloak emerged from the blood red trees.

“Who’s there?” Ephesus called out, his voice echoing in the darkness. There was no reply, but the intruder inched closer. When he unfolded his hands, revealing a stick, Ephesus grabbed his spear and prepared to throw it at the intruder. But then he heard a voice.

“Wait!”

The figure removed his hood and Ephesus relented. The voice was breathy and feeble, but full of knowledge.



 

“Syphus?” Ephesus peered into the trees and the stranger removed his hood, revealing a wrinkled face, stubborn brow and brown warm eyes glowing in the fire’s light. The man’s long white beard also tumbled to the forest floor. Ephesus breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re lucky I’m patient, Syphus.” he said, taking the man under his arm to sit towards the fire.

“Oh, my boy, to have patience is one thing. But it is in how you use it that results in good or bad luck.” Syphus sat beside the young man as Ephesus prepared a kettle of tea.

“So, what brings you to the Red Wood, Ephesus? Wood sprites? Drunken soldiers? Another mythical being you insist you saw on your boat?”

“How about a quest?” Ephesus answered, pouring the old man a cup.

Syphus shook his head with a raised eyebrow. “What are you up to, boy?”

Ephesus grinned. “Syphus, you know the princess has sent forth a decree. If a man can cross the wood and bring her this bag of stones, she'll wed him.”

“And you believe you will fulfill her quest?” Syphus questioned.

“I can do more than that, my friend." Ephesus replied. "The princess also wrote of the King, that his days are numbered. You know of my love for her, that I know her like no one else. And you know I will never give up. The King is a fiend, Syphus. He’s carved wounds into our home that still haven’t healed. I mean, you remember when the Queen-”

“Yes, boy. I remember.”  Syphus cut him off, his eyes suddenly dark. “The Queen…” He sighed, staring into the fire’s glow. The fire crackled in the silence before Ephesus spoke again, his voice low.

“Elisa deserves freedom, Syphus, as does her kingdom. I want to give her what she deserves.”

Syphus sighed. “T’was long ago I knew of your desires, Ephesus. A young girl can set one’s heart ablaze faster than you can spark this fire. But be warned, boy: love leads down a twisted path. Your fire will burn for only so long before-”

But before Syphus could continue, the fire was doused; but not by water. It was vanquished by an Orif, an evil ogre that lived amongst the trees eager to chew on human flesh. He lunged for the two men and caught the horrified Syphus in his claws. Syphus screamed in anguish as the oirf slashed his neck, threw him into the trees and dove for the fisherman. But Ephesus grabbed his fishing hook and speared the fiend in his belly. Blood and bile spurted out of the creature’s body and onto the red bark of the tree.

Yet, even as his howl pierced the night, the orif continued to fight. His skin refused to break against steel, his foul breath filled Ephesus’s nose and his filthy claws scraped the hero's arms and torso. The young man was frantic for a way to conquer the beast and grabbed a discarded oak branch. Ephesus set it ablaze and watched in horror as the monster’s eyes glowed in the light until his entire body was bathed in flame.  Finally, with his scream echoing into the wood, the ogre tumbled lifeless to the forest floor.

The fisherman extinguished the flames and caught his breath. With his heart still pounding, Ephesus ran to Syphus’s side, hoping to save him.

“My boy…” Syphus groaned, his heart slowing and his breath no more than a whisper.



 

“Don’t talk, don’t talk.” Ephesus rebuked, trying to stem the red river flowing out of Syphus’s chest. “You’re going to be alright. Syphus, look at me.”

The old man’s eyes looked up, as his shaking hand reached out. He gripped Ephesus’s hand and placed into it a golden ring set with a jade stone.

That small, still strong voice came again.“A guide, m’boy. The closer you get...the brighter it glows.” he whispered. “Save her.”

His eyes filling with tears, Ephesus nodded. “Thank you, my friend.”

Syphus smiled and breathed his last breath. Ephesus held him close in the dark night that passed. By dawn’s rise, the young man buried the old under a fallen red tree, inscribing upon the bark: Here lies Syphus the Wise. It took Ephesus the rest of the day to cross the forest, but as a second night fell, he knew this time to keep his guard up.

As Ephesus made his way towards the mystical river, Princess Elisa stared at him from a magic mirror inside her golden tower. She was reminded of his nobility those years ago and was so touched by how far he was willing to go, she knew he was going to marry her even if it killed him. Torn, Elisa felt there was more she could do than watch his journey from her golden prison. But her father angrily rebuked her, declaring with a barrage of slaps that if she dared travel across the mountain, he would see to it that she never returned. So Princess Elisa mournfully relented, spending a dark, sleepless night staring intently out her tower window.

As the night wore on, Ephesus came upon the cool, clear misty lake that was as still as glass. His breath cooled and his heart slowed to a simple pulse. The air was still and he dared not move. Suddenly, the water began to ripple and sway before him. As the mist parted, a figure rose from the waves. Ephesus stood resolute and fearful, holding his fishing spear aloft. This mythical figure walked towards him in shadow but Ephesus lit a torch, exposing her face. This enchanting creature was Slerina, a siren cursed to the waves whose lilting voice led even the strongest sailor to a watery grave. Slerina’s skin was dark blue and her black tangled hair was matted with crabs, fish and seaweed. Her dress was decorated with water lilies, the skeletons of soldiers and kimono fish. She smiled a gleaming grin at Ephesus and his skin crawled. Her black eyes glinted in the misty river; she was beautifully terrifying.

But the fisherman emboldened his courage and said, “Spirit of the river, I ask to cross.”

Slerina laughed and Ephesus felt his spine shiver as she spoke. “Is that all?”

Her teeth gleamed white in the darkness and her crabs crawled around her skin. She walked slowly around Ephesus, stroking his shoulders and kissing him sweetly.

Ephesus nodded, resolute as always.

“I hear you want more than that, boy.” Slerina hissed. “You want the golden girl. That precious jewel in her golden tower awaiting her handsome champion. You want what all heroes want: to live happily ever after.” The sarcasm dripped from her voice like the water that surrounded the two and Ephesus swallowed hard. Slerina was known for her quick hands and stole the magical ring from the fisherman’s pocket before he could even notice.


 

“I will not fall prey to your deceptions, you fiend.” Ephesus proclaimed, his hands shaking.

“Really? You’re immune to me?” Slerina hissed.

Then, Slerina raised her arms and the waters rose around her. Ephesus blocked his sight as he feared she would turn into a hideous creature. But when he raised his eyes, it was Princess Elisa, his golden girl bathed in her luminescent glory, who met his gaze. Ephesus was so overwhelmed by her glowing beauty he dropped his sword at the base of the river. She smiled at him and beckoned the silent Ephesus forward. “Like me more now, fisherman?”

Ephesus was mute as his lips ached to press against hers. She beckoned to him again and whispered, “You want your happy ending, don’t you Ephesus? Here I am.”

Ephesus, locked under her spell, walked into the water, unwavering towards his supposed true love. Slerina placed her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. She heard his heart cry out the golden girl’s name. “Yes, its me.” Her voice slithered into his ear.

Ephesus felt the kiss, but wrenched himself away. “No. No…” he whispered. “This isn’t real.”

“And this doesn’t feel real to you?” the creature replied, kissing the hero more aggressively this time, wrapping him in her arms tightly. But Ephesus again pulled out of her slimy grasp.

“I know what real love is. I’ve felt it. And you? You give me nothing but pleasure. Love is pleasurable, Slerina, but there is so much more to it.”

“Is there?” Slerina replied, her smile fading to hatred. “How would you know, hero? You’ve never even met her.”

“That’s what you think.” Ephesus shot back. “But my heart guides me. And I will not fall prey to you.”

Slerina hissed, her dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “Well, hero, it looks like you won’t be getting your happy ending.”

Slerina pounced on Ephesus with all her strength and dragged him under the depths of the river. She glued her lips to his as the waters weighed them down, sucking his life away. But Ephesus heart was far stronger than her and he fought valiantly, struggling desperately for air. Amidst the struggle the waves spit out the skeletons of dead warriors also pulled into their watery graves. Suddenly, even as  the river closed in, Ephesus spotted a small dagger at the bottom of the sea floor. He went limp for one moment, allowing Slerina to release him, believing him dead. But it was enough, as Ephesus grabbed the dagger from the lake floor and shoved it deep into her chest. The waters churned wildly as Slerina let out a horrific shriek before collapsing beneath the bloody sea. Her true form was now betrayed, as the great beauty was revealed as a haggard, wrinkled old woman with long gray hair and a sunken face. Soaked, Ephesus pulled his golden ring from her wrinkled finger and swam back to the shore, stowing the bloody dagger onto his belt along with his fish hook.





 

Yet, his mind began playing tricks on him. As Ephesus slept on the forest floor, his dreams echoed with questions: Could he really do this? How would he climb the mountain? Would he survive? Would the princess accept his vow or laugh in his face? Ephesus opened his eyes at the dawn’s rise and peered into the golden light. Before him stood a fork in the road that had not existed the night before, with three dirt paths and a tall wooden sign whose names had rubbed off standing in the middle. The path to the right was covered by trees and shone through with sunlight and a sense of wonder. The path to the left was dark and misty, with a chilly wind blowing about and the sunlight fighting to pierce the darkness. The path in the middle was bare and grey, with dead trees littering the road and the skeletons of dead animals littered the road. The bloody trees behind the young man closed against him. No one stood before him but he heard a strange voice echo directly in his ear.

Choose, it said. The voice was calm and smooth but neither male or female.

Ephesus shouted aloud, “Who are you?”

There was no reply, but the trees seemed to inch closer and closer towards the hero.

The voice came again: Choose, mortal.

He shivered at the sound of their roots crawling against the earth and gazed fervently at each option. Syphus's words came back to the fisherman: Save her. He chose the left path. As morning wore on, Ephesus arrived at the base of the stone mountain. He could barely see the glint of Princess Elisa’s glowing ring through the grey clouds as the wind whipped his hair. Ephesus slung the bag of stones back over himself and took a deep breath. Here was his final obstacle.

Meanwhile, as Ephesus risked life and limb to reach the princess, the princess herself could wait no longer. Elisa knew she had to meet her champion face to face and ensure the two of them would live a happy life together, no matter the cost.  She felt incredibly guilty doing nothing while Ephesus risked his life for her. There was no way she was worthy of his love unless she was willing to do the same. But first, she had to conquer the beast that left her beset in her prison. In the dead of night, Princess Elisa picked the lock of her tower door. When the lock clicked, she threw on her cloak with a crossbow on her back and her sword at her side, racing down the endless steps of her tower and faced the stone door between herself and freedom. She opened the creaking wood and stepped delicately outside into the dark corridor. The light of the torches upon the walls cast eerie shadows that tricked her eyes and fogged her brain. But the young maid was determined to be free. As her footsteps echoed through the castle, Elisa’s memories swirled of her father; his anger, his ridicule, his fists...his words. She shuddered.

The princess gripped her bow and turned the corner. She stood before King Anphus’s bedchamber and snuck in without making a sound. In a large canopy bed laden with white sheets lay not the King, but his mistress, Meloria, a young chamber maid with bright blonde hair. She stirred in her sleep and her eyes flashed open. But Elisa lay her hand over the girl’s mouth and whispered, “Not a word.”

Meloria’s brown eyes bulged and she nodded.

“Where is he?” Elisa asked, her voice barely audible.



 

The girl pointed towards the opposite door inside the chamber and Elisa turned. She gripped her crossbow with a rigid hand and stepped forward. The door creaked open and there stood King Anphus, dressed in a black robe. His bright green eyes screened the room like a hawk searching for its prey and froze on his daughter. He snapped his fingers.

“Meloria. Out.” His voice, deep and smooth, echoed into the silence.

Meloria scampered out of the bed and ran down the hall. Elisa stayed still and faced her father.

“Elisa, relinquish your sword.” he commanded.

Elisa gripped it instead and was silent.

The King stared her down and said, “This is how you behave? Disobeying me has always been your pleasure. What, do you think I enjoy it?”

“You enjoy giving pain.” Elisa shot back, her voice powerful and smooth. “All my life, you saw me as something to hurt. I never saw the world beyond these walls. But I heard the cries of the men you burned, the weeping of the women you raped, the suffering of the people you rule.

Anphus stiffened in anger.  “Keeping those beneath us in line is the duty of a King. My blades speak more than any proclamation ever could.” Anphus was stoic and his voice was as deep as his contempt for the girl who stood before him.

“Yet here you stand, Father, with your reign poisoned by the blood of thousands and your heart blacker than the stone that built this prison. Have you no sympathy?”

Anphus hissed. “Sympathy promotes weakness, Elisa. But fear? Fear projects strength. Terror keeps those beneath us in line, as it will you.” The King unsheathed a dagger from behind his robes and held it close.

“Me, Father?” Elisa asked, her voice shaking. “You shackle me, slap me, berage me with foul words. You have kept me caged in this palace my entire life.  But now, I will be free.”

Anphus replied, his eyes brimming with macabre malice. “You desire freedom? You fool. The world will swallow you whole outside these walls. Your place is here, by my side. I follow my father’s ways, Elisa. One day, so will you.”

Before the princess could even blink, her father stepped forward and raised the dagger to his daughter’s throat. Elisa’s breath was caught in her chest; his arms tightened around her and he relished the feeling. “One day, you will understand.”

Anphus shoved his daughter and held her down upon the bed. Her crossbow fell but she fought back, her blue irises piercing his face.

“Go ahead. Kill me.” she hissed. “Just like you killed Mother.”

“Ryinra was weak, Elisa.” Anphus growled in Elisa’s ear. “She never knew her place. Neither do you.” He pressed the knife further into her skin leaving beads of blood.

“I know my place, Father. It’s right here.”




 

Elisa was too quick. As the words left her mouth, she wrenched herself from her father’s grasp, grabbed her crossbow and fired. The bolt shot through the air into her father’s chest. He backed into the doorway and dropped his knife, staggering and gasping for breath. Blood spurted from the wound as Elisa reloaded.  The King’s fury erupted at last as he struggled to rise, but Elisa drew her sword and slashed his legs unable to stop. Her shrieks of repressed anguish cut through his flesh with each blow. Anphus tried to rise but she grabbed an unlit torch and bashed his fists; the smell of burning flesh wafted through the room. He kept screaming nonetheless.“You whore! You will never see the light of day again! I am your father!”

As blood filled his lungs, Elisa simply stood over her father watching his life drained away. “You were right about one thing, Father. I am your daughter.”

The princess shot her bolt again, this time into the King’s screaming mouth. King Anphus’s eyes bulged before he choked on his own blood and fell to the floor, dead. Elisa dropped the crossbow into the dark room without a single backwards glance. As the guards raced after the princess, she climbed down another flight of stairs, threw open the door and relished the cold, crisp air blowing upon her face. With the calls of her father’s soldiers echoing behind her, Elisa began to climb the mountain, her clothes still soaked in her father’s blood, determined to earn her happy ending. Step by step, day after day, Ephesus and Elisa walked across the blistering cold and rainy terrain into darkness looking for each other. The fisherman came upon the dead skeletons of former princes who’d made this rigorous journey, now torn to pieces by the hungry beasts that lingered. Speaking of those beasts, Elisa heard footsteps behind her.

Sinister growling echoed in her ear and she pulled out her sword. Suddenly, savage wolves and bloodthirsty lions leapt out at her, hungry for fresh meat. With her heart pounding, Elisa slashed wildly at the beasts, her voice silenced in fear. The lion’s teeth glinted in the metal and her eyes widened in horror. The snow whirled around the wolves and the princess as she battled her way through the howling beasts. Her black hair froze in the blizzard as the wolves surrounded the girl, ripped her cloak to shreds and she raced into a dark cavern. But the wolves followed her and backed her into a corner. Smelling her father’s blood on her clothes, the wolves pounced closer and chomped achingly at her flesh.

In desperation, with her adrenaline pumping, Elisa shrieked and grabbed her fallen sword. She stabbed one wolf in the neck and the red blood spurted onto her face. But the remaining pack inched even closer. In despair, the princess sawed through her wrist, chopped off her right hand and threw it to the wolves, who hungrily chased after the meat and melted into the white mist. Elisa’s heart burned in her chest, pumping out the hot red blood onto the freezing snow. The ice numbed the pain in her arm and Elisa’s eyes filled with tears. Her head was spinning with images of her father’s body and her eyes glazed over. She started to weep but saw a figure standing before her. Fearful it was her father risen from the grave, Elisa tried to fight, but she passed out. Then, this stranger picked up the young maiden and carried her towards a hidden crevice deeper in the mountain.




 

Some time later, Elisa awoke disoriented and startled. She sat up and looked around, feeling the warm air surrounding her: she was in another cave covered by a deerskin blanket. Elisa stared intently at the fire crackling and the figure sitting behind it cooking a dead rat. Shadows danced on the wall and Elisa smelled smoke, looking to her left and seeing her savior. It was an old woman, grey and wrinkled with pale skin and silver hair. She smiled to the princess and wrapped herself in her own bear cloak. But Elisa drew her dagger anyway.

“Dear princess, do not fear.” the old woman said. “I have saved you. You will be healed.” The woman stoked the fire and started humming.

Elisa blinked and asked, “Who are you?”.She still kept her dagger at the ready.

“Sweet girl, I am Margaretha.” Her voice was quiet, supple and wispy.

Elisa was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever heard of this woman.“Who are you, Margaretha?”

“I have told you, Princess. I’m your rescuer. I have lived a prisoner of this cave for many years, hearing the stories men tell and listening to the will of the gods.”  

Margaretha gestured to the ceilings as the fire glowed bright and Elisa gazed fervently at the strange black symbols smeared across the cool mineral. They seemed to sway in the light and dance on the black stone. The old woman stoked the fire again and Elisa relinquished her weapon, realizing this was just an old reclusive woman. She gratefully took the bowl of broth Margaretha gave her; the liquid was warm, red and tasted of carrots. Elisa savored the heat tingling in her throat and felt her strength return almost instantly. She shoved the blanket off her body and sat before the fire.

“Margaretha,  why did you save me?” Elisa questioned.

Margaretha gave her a cold stare. “”Are you not grateful, Princess?”

“Of course I am. I just wondered...why.” Elisa replied.

The old woman was quiet as the wind howled. “I know how to recognize a desperate soul.” she finally replied. Elisa had to admit, this crazy old woman was right.

“Do you believe I should have abandoned you to the wolves?” Margaretha asked.

“Perhaps. After all…” Elisa fell silent, staring into the flame.

“You killed your father.” the old woman replied.

Elisa stared in shock at the aged ruin. “How did you…?”

“The blood on your cloak, Princess. It was king’s blood.” Magirtha held up the now torn cloak. “The gods are known to recognise king’s blood. Blood that runs in your veins.”

“The gods? What do they have to do with me?” Elisa asked.

“They are looking upon you with favor, Princess. They see what you saw, what the whole kingdom saw. Anphus was a dog who needed to be put down. You did the right thing.”

Maybe, Elisa thought.

“You have someone out there searching for you, do you not?” Margaretha grinned at the girl, who nodded with a smile.


 

“I...yes.” the girl replied. “We met long ago, and I sent out a messenger hoping to be freed from my father. He accepted the challenge and-”

“And you believe you must find him, don’t you?”

Again, Elisa nodded. Then, Margaretha hit her with the real question: “Why?”

Elisa was stunned. An eternity seemed to pass before her lips spoke again.

“I have to follow my heart, Margaretha. He is risking his life at my expense. What am I if I am not willing to do the same?”

“What are you indeed?” the old woman replied. Elisa turned towards the fire, the amber light illuminating her misty blue eyes. She sat there very quiet as her heart beat heavy with fear and trepidation. Magirtha then sat even closer to the girl and placed her hands over Elisa’s chest. The sound was faint at first, but then Elisa heard it: a heartbeat echoing throughout the cave, growing louder and louder.

She told the wise witch in a clear voice: “I’m a woman looking for happiness, Margaretha. What’s wrong with that?”

“You have a great heart, Princess. Full of love and nobility.” the old lady replied. “For that,  I will help you.”

Then, to Elisa’s shock and horror, Magirtha reached out towards the fire and the flames licked her skin. Elisa lunged forward to stop her, but the aged woman hissed and the girl recoiled. The drawings on the walls moved as the earth shook and Magirtha closed her eyes, her lips breaking into a serene smile. She began chanting a strange language before withdrawing her hand from the flames. Her hands glowing with heat and glory, she grasped Elisa’s shaking hand and placed a small object into it.

Elisa gazed tenderly at it: a small, glowing red seed. “What shall I do with this?”

Magirtha smiled. “As I said, the gods favor your intentions, Princess. It was no accident you met Ephesus at the festival that day; it was fated by the stars. The gods have kept me here to guide you, but you must not forget your people. They are in need of your wisdom and foresight. If and when you achieve your quest, plant this seed at the foot of the mountain. And you will bring to them untold joy.”

Elisa was awed by the gift, but something still troubled her. “If I fulfill my goal, what will happen to you, Magirtha? You cannot leave this mountain.”

“Do not worry for me, my child. I will be at peace knowing you’ve found happiness. The world is a cruel place, where good people suffer through terrible things. But you must live. Ascend this mountain, gaze upon the face of your champion and someday, happiness will be yours. Perhaps one day we will meet again. Farewell.”

In the blink of an eye, Elisa was returned to the mountainside, her amputated arm still slung in cloth and the blizzard still beating her mercilessly. She grasped her gift firmly, more determined that she would unite with her one true love. But as Ephesus and Elisa continued their ascent, their strength began to fail. The cold whipped the fisherman’s bones and the girl’s heart became weak as her cloth blew off her arm and blood began to pump from her appendage. His back cracked under the weight of his stones and her lips turned blue.


 

Through a darkened night, Ephesus crept higher and higher into the sky, his hands shaking as they grasped the bag of stones firmly. Then, standing low against the wind on a high cliff, he saw once more a strange figure in the distance. Tall, dark and twisted, the figure, clearly a male, walked forward apparently unaware of the blistering cold and flying snow.

“Hello?” Ephesus shouted to the stranger, his voice hissing against the shrieking wind. “Who are you?!”

The stranger walked forward and Ephesus gaze aghast with wide eyes, taking in this man’s appearance: his skin was dark as earth but his eyes were bright green. He was skinny and had a crooked smile. He wore tattered clothes and held in his hand a giant wooden staff. He also wore a pair of stag’s antlers on his head and a belt of wolves teeth. Strange, Ephesus thought.

“Who are you?” the fisherman asked again. The winds died down, howling indignantly, as the stranger held out his staff to the skies, the snow obeying his command and the blizzard died down. Ephesus shivered as the air warmed around the two and he gripped his fishing hook. The stranger smiled his toothy grin at the young man and waved his staff again. A kettle of tea over a blazing fire appeared before the men. Grateful, Ephesus dropped to his knees and wrung his hands before the heat. He stared in disbelief at this stranger.

“Who are you?” he asked for a third time.

“Orion.” the lanky lad replied. “Just, call me Orion.”

Ephesus shivered at the heat. “Thank you, Orion.”

Orion sat down on the stone and poured two cups of tea. “Ephesus…” he began.

But Ephesus interrupted. “You know my name? How?”

“I know many things. But you do not learn.” Orion replied.

“Learn what?”

“Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus was taken aback. “Excuse me?” His head was pounding trying to make sense of this imp.

Orion’s lips curled into a smile. “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”’

Ephesus was getting annoyed. “What are you playing at, you snake?”
Orion chuckled. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again. The crown rests upon the King’s head, it falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus stood in anger before this oddity of a man, threatening the riddler with his hook. “Listen, you fool, if you don’t start making sense, I’ll...I’ll…” Ephesus was suddenly lost in thought, caught off guard.

Orion raised his hand and simply said, “Answer my riddles, fisherman, and I’ll leave you in peace. If you cannot, I will leave you here to freeze and die. And you’ll need what I offer you to reach your prize.”


 

Ephesus sat back down. “Very well.”

Orion cleared his throat, repeating his line. “Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus thought to himself, This is ridiculous. But he still took a stab at it. “The cockatoo crows at the sun... because the world must awaken to a new day..”

“Go on.” Orion told him.

Ephesus cleared his throat. “The raven...the raven...he must fly at the moon because...because, well, I would guess for the opposite reason. He flies against the moon, black against white, just as loud, but letting himself know that the world must end for that day. He realizes that nothing lasts forever.”

Orion nodded. “Now, the next riddle: “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”

Ephesus puzzled over this phrase even longer. “Neither one, I think, enjoys creating...destruction? Nor do they overindulge their creations. They are trying to...keep balance, I think, between themselves...to...ugh...so balance is restored in the world.”

Orion continued. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again.  Why?”

Ephesus nodded. “Simple. Reincarnation. Life begets life. The snake lives forever. Life goes on.”

“Yet, the crown resting upon the King’s head, falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus took nearly a minute to figure out this line. “Power intoxicates all men, whether simple or wealthy. Men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon himself.”

Orion smiled. “Ephesus, you climb this mountain for the King’s daughter. No easy feat, but I applaud you. But remember: you will be counted on, depended on, to guide this kingdom, should you succeed. You will rule with her. Not above her nor below her. As the sun and moon stand side by side, so you must you. You will be balanced. Neither of you will be more or less powerful than the other.”

Ephesus’s heart beat so quickly he blurted out: “Please, Orion, tell me what I must do.”

Orion drank from his cup of tea. “The world must awaken to a new day, facing its troubles. And with every night they must put those troubles to rest. Trouble will resurface again and again and you must be prepared to strike it down, again and again. Finally, as you said, men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon themselves. Do not let that same fate befall you.”

Orion picked up his staff and stood before the fisherman, the winds picked back up again and the snow swirled endlessly around the wizard as he vanished. “Good luck, fisherman.” Ephesus felt the bitter cold slap his skin and shook his head in disbelief. Nonetheless, he continued his ascent.

Finally, after countless days and nights, Ephesus came to the top of the mountain just as Elisa also reached the summit. Exhausted, disoriented and frostbitten, Ephesus collapsed unconscious into the snow and Elisa passed out at the end of a trail of blood. Echoes of their voices blew on the wind to the other, but due to the blinding blizzard, the lovers were unaware they had fallen right in front of each other.  


 

Then, a cloaked figure swooped down from the heavens and carried the princess and the fisherman over the side of the mount back into the golden palace. As the two began to heal, lying in beds soaked with fever, Ephesus and Elisa slipped in and out of the world day after day, whispering each other’s names and seeing phantasms sway before their eyes. They lay in that twilight mist, on the brink between life and death, for many a dark night. But as the days flew by, the love between them remained strong and soon the two were met by an old friend.

Ephesus awakened first from his illness and saw a familiar face standing before him.

“Syphus!” the fisherman cried.

“Yes, my boy.” Syphus replied and embraced his friend.

Ephesus looked around in interest. “What happened?” he asked.

Syphus replied with misty eyes. “You collapsed on the mountain’s summit, Ephesus. I had to bring you here.”

“Where are we?” Ephesus looked around the room, but his head wa swimming so badly could not describe it. But he saw that it was peaceful, safe and warm and light filled the air. “Is Elisa…?”

“She’s waiting for you.” Syphus continued. Ephesus broke out into such a shout of joy that even Syphus was startled.

“I brought you to a better place, Ephesus. Somewhere you both could have your happy ending.”

Ephesus embraced his old friend with a grin. “Thank you.”

But then, the memories of all he had endured came rushing back and tears fell from his eyes. His sobs came strangled from his throat.

“Worry not about the past, my son.” Syphus told him empathetically. “Instead, look forward to your future, my son. You have fulfilled your goal. And your love is waiting.”

Ephesus dressed himself in a white tunic with golden accents and a long flowing white cape, eager to finally look into his lover’s eyes once more. He stood before a door as Syphus recited a couplet: “Ephesus, from Earth to the heavens you’ve endured dark times. Now, walk through the door and claim your prize.”

Elisa who had awakened in a separate chamber and she too saw a good friend: Margaretha.

When her confidant told her what had happened, the princess recalled what her arrogant father had said was false, as she knew it would be. Yet, Elisa too suffered grief for her experience; her cries pierced the empty silence, holding her head in her hands. Elisa was still fearful that Ephesus would not accept her as a lesser version of herself, since regaining her hand was impossible. But Margaretha assured the princess her beloved would look with his heart, not his eyes. Elisa still was eager to meet her champion and was dressed in a splendid white gown and veil. She stood before the same door and the old woman gave her a different couplet: “Elisa, from Earth below you have earned a heavenly bliss. Now, walk through the door and marry your prince.”

The door was opened and the two were thunderstruck.



 

There before Elisa stood her valiant champion in his gleaming silver armor. And before Ephesus stood the beautiful Princess in her glorious white gown. The shaking fisherman bowed before her as she smiled with happiness and curtsied in return.  The glow of candlelight alone illuminated their splendor and Ephesus laid the bag of stones at Elisa’s feet, now changed into rubies and amethysts. Here stood the most grueling test of all. The princess and the fisherman had crossed mysterious boundaries, braved torrentus changes in nature, suffered personal losses and beaten dangerous thrilling trials to reach this moment. But now, they had to speak as equals; their hearts had never beaten so quickly.

“It’s been a long time, Ephesus.” Elisa told him, quivering. She could barely speak, her heart was pounding so fast. “I’ve...I’ve missed you.”

Ephesus’s mouth was so dry he only smiled. But then his heart skipped a beat and he opened his mouth. “I thought of you everyday, Elisa.”

Elisa timidly asked, “How were you...able to fulfill my quest, my champion?”

With his heart pounding, Ephesus replied, “Your Highness, I carried those stones for you. But they were not stones to me. They were the pebbles I scattered across the water in my boat, hoping one day we could be together. Your forest was only a bridge to your heart...a bridge I had to offer a great sacrifice to cross. But it was the right cost, as I received a just reward.” Ephesus then knelt before Elisa and slipped his golden ring onto her finger. She giggled in delight.

“Elisa, your river was merely a puddle I walked through. This mountain was only one more step towards you...a step I would take ten times more.”

Ephesus rose and asked tenderly, “Princess, why did you want to find me?”

Elisa smiled and replied, “Ephesus, I lost my heart to you the first moment I saw you. If we were meant to be together, I wanted to be worthy of your love. But my determination...it made me blind and I paid a heavy price.” Elisa glanced down at her severed arm, which Ephesus tenderly held. She looked back at her beloved.

“But I would have gladly lost my head if it meant being with you. We were fated by the stars to be together.  Ephesus, of course I willaccept your love.”

Elisa stretched out her arms to the hero and Ephesus, holding her close, kissed his bride. The heavens burst open and the earth shook to its core; at last, the mountain that had separated the kingdom from its rulers crashed into nothing. Ephesus and Elisa were flown down from the mountain on the back of a large green dragon with silver wings. The newly freed villagers came together as, side by side, royal and commoner alike helped rebuild the golden palace, which filled with music , laughter and dancing in celebration of the sacred marriage. As Princess Elisa and Prince Ephesus whirled around the ballroom together, the music swooned and the townsfolk cheered. After the ball, the new royal couple entered their palace garden where they planted the magical red seed. It grew into a splendid glowing tree with golden leaves that always gave the village a bountiful harvest, protected forever by the beautiful dragon.

And so, the princess and her fisherman lived happily forever after.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom long ago, there was a powerful king named Anphus who lived in a golden castle on the other side of a mountain. He had long dark hair, bronze skin and terrifying green eyes. His spirited daughter, Princess Elisa, was imprisoned within the castle’s highest tower to guard her from the world. Like her father, Elisa had dark features but her eyes were blue and and her heart was kind. King Anphus had lost his lovely Queen, Ryinra, years before, but the cause of her death was kept secret.  He ruled over a small, prosperous kingdom; but his subjects all lived in fear of his heinous wrath, as his rage was legendary and his punishments for dishonor infamous. The King beheaded the soldiers he found disgraceful and burned the fields of farmers who could not supply their crops. His soldiers stole away peasant girls who refused their advances and drowned fisherman who did not fill their King’s quota. One such fisherman was named Ephesus; he was kind, gracious and enjoyed his work, yet he too held disdain for the king. But, the fisherman also harbored a secret desire for adventure, fueled by an intense, deep love for the King’s sequestered daughter.

The two had met briefly long ago, at that time in life when youth is barely grasping at adulthood, between childhood and independence. They’d attended a great festival celebrating Queen Ryinra’s birthday and the village had been filled with music, food and drink lasting through the night; men and women wore colorful masks with lavish costumes and danced to lyrical music echoing through the forest. Ephesus had attended the celebration hoping to compete in a great tournament, pitting wit against brawn in a contest of skill at arms. Unfortunately, the fisherman had little training in combat then and earned black and blue bruises for his ambition, falling from his horse disgraced in the jousting tournament. That evening, Ephesus was nursing his wounds and standing on a hill far from the festival, overlooking the view. To his surprise, a young girl with dark hair and luminous blue eyes walked over to him and smiled. She was clothed as a servant in a plain brown dress and black cloak.

“Hello.” Ephesus said. He smiled at her with crooked teeth, knocked free by his own horse.

“Hello.” Elisa replied. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s nothing.” Ephesus slapped a cold steak on his blackened eye and sighed.

“At least you made it out ok.” Elisa said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ephesus.” he replied. “I live in the village. My father is...was, a fisherman. What is your name?”

“My name is...Ellie.” the girl replied. “I live out in the fields. My family tends the sheep.”

The two talked back and forth for awhile, looking out beyond the hills, hearing the echoes of the cheering crowds and festive music. Then, Elisa turned towards Ephesus and winced at the sight of his eye. “I’m sorry you were hurt. I’ve always hated these tournaments.”

“Why?” Ephesus interjected. “The men ride astride their horses, charging into battle with swords drawn and people cheering and the ladies throwing flowers at him if he wins. Sounds great to me.”





 

“Yes, but those men have a choice.” Elisa replied. “They can do something great. I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Ephesus asked.

Elisa was quiet before she answered. “My father is forcing me to follow...his way. He says I will grow up to become like him. But he’s a terrible man. And I can’t disobey him...” She trailed off.

“That’s...that’s awful.” Ephesus replied. “I’m sorry. I...well…”

“Go on.” Elisa told him

“My father wasn’t so grand either. He taught me his trade, sure, but fishing is all I ever got to do. I  never even got to scrap against other boys. That’s why I competed in the tournament today. So I could make something of myself. Surely, your father would understand you wanting that too.”

“But I can’t defy him. He’s too...he’s-”

“Who?” Ephesus interjected.

Elisa again held her silence, staring up at the stars. But then Ephesus looked and saw Elisa was wearing a gold chain emblazoned with a ruby pendant and jade stones. His eyes bulged, realizing the truth and he knelt before the girl.

“Your Highness! Your father is the-” Ephesus’s lips were stopped as Elisa swooped down putting her hand over his mouth. The two blushed violently before the girl spoke again, looking wildly in all directions.

“Please don’t say anything. I’m sorry. I have to go.” She turned away about to leave, but Ephesus grabbed her hand. As they touched under the moonless sky, storm clouds gathered in the distance and thunder rumbled. Elisa gave him a wistful smile and gave him from her pocket a handkerchief embroidered with the royal crest. “You fought well today. Remember that.” She turned, heading back into the woods.

“Wait!” Ephesus called. “Then, to his shock, a single word shot from his lips: “Elisa!”

Elisa turned, her heart pounding when he said her true name.

He said to her, “M’lady, you do have a choice. Choose...yourself.”

Elisa simply stared at him with those large, luminous blue eyes.

“I hope to see you again, Your Highness.” Ephesus told her.

“And I you.” she softly replied.

As Elisa made her way into the wood, Ephesus called back to her: “And I promise, m’lady, your secret is safe  with me.”

Elisa only smiled as a twinge of sadness crossed her eyes before disappearing into the night. Years later, Queen Ryinra was dead and the land lived in fear of its tyrannical king. As for Ephesus, he grew up fishing and sailing on the lake at sunrise, watching the golden light reflect off the mountain fortress. He believed meeting the princess was fated by the stars and dreamt of the day when he would see her again; when he could save her. He also secretly worked at mastering the art of combat so he would protect what was his.



 

One fateful day, the princess secretly sent a servant with a heavy bag of stones to the village, which was on the other side of the mountain. As the entire town gathered in the square, the servant dutifully delivered the message from the maiden: I am desperate for freedom. The King’s days are numbered. Any man who can lift this bag of stones, cross the realm and lay them at my doorstep may wed me. Now, the mountain that bordered the King’s palace was no mere mountain. It kissed the sky and penetrated the clouds. The base was rooted in the part of the kingdom that saw many storms as well as savage beasts and snowy blizzards. It also lay at the edge of a forest of red trees that bordered a cool and clear river. Here, imprisoned on the other side of the stone castle, the princess awaited her champion. Many a man in the village tried his luck at lifting the heavy bag of stones, with most believing the challenge too great; but not even the town's strongest warrior could lift it off the ground.

Ephesus watched day after day as each man stepped forward to see if he could lift the bag of stones. Even though the chance to see Elisa again tugged at his heartstrings, Ephesus repressed the desire to take the stones, adamant that he was unworthy. What chance did a common fisherman like have to save a beautiful princess? Then, one day, as yet another man tried to lift the bag, Ephesus stood watching. Sneaking amidst the crowds, the messenger who’d brought the princess’s challenge secretly dropped into Ephesus’s a note that read: Make your choice.

As the sun began to set, crowds of drunken stronger noblemen laughed at again another failure. Soon, they turned on the common fisherman, jesting that he too had no chance. As their voices rose against him, Ephesus’s impulsive anger got the best of him, and he cried out to the townsfolk: “See here! I will take the stones!”

As the crowd watched, falling over themselves with laughter, Ephesus stepped forward. A dark storm soon rose over the mountain with the black clouds sweeping across the sky. In an instant, the fisherman effortlessly slung the bag over his shoulders, with his back bent from the weight. The laughter died. With his bag of stones on his back, a sack of bread on his hip and his fishing hook in his hand, Ephesus resolved to make the slow, painful ascent through the woods, over the river and up the mountain towards Princess Elisa. As the sun set in the west, Ephesus crossed into the dark and twisted forest and was soon lost. The numerous halls of trees twisted into a dizzying labyrinth that tangled and torrented the poor fisherman. His bag of stones weighed heavily on his back and night fell. Ephesus’s heart rattled with adrenaline and he started a fire to keep warm. But as the fire began to glow, a hooded figure wearing a red cloak emerged from the blood red trees.

“Who’s there?” Ephesus called out, his voice echoing in the darkness. There was no reply, but the intruder inched closer. When he unfolded his hands, revealing a stick, Ephesus grabbed his spear and prepared to throw it at the intruder. But then he heard a voice.

“Wait!”

The figure removed his hood and Ephesus relented. The voice was breathy and feeble, but full of knowledge.



 

“Syphus?” Ephesus peered into the trees and the stranger removed his hood, revealing a wrinkled face, stubborn brow and brown warm eyes glowing in the fire’s light. The man’s long white beard also tumbled to the forest floor. Ephesus breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re lucky I’m patient, Syphus.” he said, taking the man under his arm to sit towards the fire.

“Oh, my boy, to have patience is one thing. But it is in how you use it that results in good or bad luck.” Syphus sat beside the young man as Ephesus prepared a kettle of tea.

“So, what brings you to the Red Wood, Ephesus? Wood sprites? Drunken soldiers? Another mythical being you insist you saw on your boat?”

“How about a quest?” Ephesus answered, pouring the old man a cup.

Syphus shook his head with a raised eyebrow. “What are you up to, boy?”

Ephesus grinned. “Syphus, you know the princess has sent forth a decree. If a man can cross the wood and bring her this bag of stones, she'll wed him.”

“And you believe you will fulfill her quest?” Syphus questioned.

“I can do more than that, my friend." Ephesus replied. "The princess also wrote of the King, that his days are numbered. You know of my love for her, that I know her like no one else. And you know I will never give up. The King is a fiend, Syphus. He’s carved wounds into our home that still haven’t healed. I mean, you remember when the Queen-”

“Yes, boy. I remember.”  Syphus cut him off, his eyes suddenly dark. “The Queen…” He sighed, staring into the fire’s glow. The fire crackled in the silence before Ephesus spoke again, his voice low.

“Elisa deserves freedom, Syphus, as does her kingdom. I want to give her what she deserves.”

Syphus sighed. “T’was long ago I knew of your desires, Ephesus. A young girl can set one’s heart ablaze faster than you can spark this fire. But be warned, boy: love leads down a twisted path. Your fire will burn for only so long before-”

But before Syphus could continue, the fire was doused; but not by water. It was vanquished by an Orif, an evil ogre that lived amongst the trees eager to chew on human flesh. He lunged for the two men and caught the horrified Syphus in his claws. Syphus screamed in anguish as the oirf slashed his neck, threw him into the trees and dove for the fisherman. But Ephesus grabbed his fishing hook and speared the fiend in his belly. Blood and bile spurted out of the creature’s body and onto the red bark of the tree.

Yet, even as his howl pierced the night, the orif continued to fight. His skin refused to break against steel, his foul breath filled Ephesus’s nose and his filthy claws scraped the hero's arms and torso. The young man was frantic for a way to conquer the beast and grabbed a discarded oak branch. Ephesus set it ablaze and watched in horror as the monster’s eyes glowed in the light until his entire body was bathed in flame.  Finally, with his scream echoing into the wood, the ogre tumbled lifeless to the forest floor.

The fisherman extinguished the flames and caught his breath. With his heart still pounding, Ephesus ran to Syphus’s side, hoping to save him.

“My boy…” Syphus groaned, his heart slowing and his breath no more than a whisper.



 

“Don’t talk, don’t talk.” Ephesus rebuked, trying to stem the red river flowing out of Syphus’s chest. “You’re going to be alright. Syphus, look at me.”

The old man’s eyes looked up, as his shaking hand reached out. He gripped Ephesus’s hand and placed into it a golden ring set with a jade stone.

That small, still strong voice came again.“A guide, m’boy. The closer you get...the brighter it glows.” he whispered. “Save her.”

His eyes filling with tears, Ephesus nodded. “Thank you, my friend.”

Syphus smiled and breathed his last breath. Ephesus held him close in the dark night that passed. By dawn’s rise, the young man buried the old under a fallen red tree, inscribing upon the bark: Here lies Syphus the Wise. It took Ephesus the rest of the day to cross the forest, but as a second night fell, he knew this time to keep his guard up.

As Ephesus made his way towards the mystical river, Princess Elisa stared at him from a magic mirror inside her golden tower. She was reminded of his nobility those years ago and was so touched by how far he was willing to go, she knew he was going to marry her even if it killed him. Torn, Elisa felt there was more she could do than watch his journey from her golden prison. But her father angrily rebuked her, declaring with a barrage of slaps that if she dared travel across the mountain, he would see to it that she never returned. So Princess Elisa mournfully relented, spending a dark, sleepless night staring intently out her tower window.

As the night wore on, Ephesus came upon the cool, clear misty lake that was as still as glass. His breath cooled and his heart slowed to a simple pulse. The air was still and he dared not move. Suddenly, the water began to ripple and sway before him. As the mist parted, a figure rose from the waves. Ephesus stood resolute and fearful, holding his fishing spear aloft. This mythical figure walked towards him in shadow but Ephesus lit a torch, exposing her face. This enchanting creature was Slerina, a siren cursed to the waves whose lilting voice led even the strongest sailor to a watery grave. Slerina’s skin was dark blue and her black tangled hair was matted with crabs, fish and seaweed. Her dress was decorated with water lilies, the skeletons of soldiers and kimono fish. She smiled a gleaming grin at Ephesus and his skin crawled. Her black eyes glinted in the misty river; she was beautifully terrifying.

But the fisherman emboldened his courage and said, “Spirit of the river, I ask to cross.”

Slerina laughed and Ephesus felt his spine shiver as she spoke. “Is that all?”

Her teeth gleamed white in the darkness and her crabs crawled around her skin. She walked slowly around Ephesus, stroking his shoulders and kissing him sweetly.

Ephesus nodded, resolute as always.

“I hear you want more than that, boy.” Slerina hissed. “You want the golden girl. That precious jewel in her golden tower awaiting her handsome champion. You want what all heroes want: to live happily ever after.” The sarcasm dripped from her voice like the water that surrounded the two and Ephesus swallowed hard. Slerina was known for her quick hands and stole the magical ring from the fisherman’s pocket before he could even notice.


“I will not fall prey to your deceptions, you fiend.” Ephesus proclaimed, his hands shaking.

“Really? You’re immune to me?” Slerina hissed.

Then, Slerina raised her arms and the waters rose around her. Ephesus blocked his sight as he feared she would turn into a hideous creature. But when he raised his eyes, it was Princess Elisa, his golden girl bathed in her luminescent glory, who met his gaze. Ephesus was so overwhelmed by her glowing beauty he dropped his sword at the base of the river. She smiled at him and beckoned the silent Ephesus forward. “Like me more now, fisherman?”

Ephesus was mute as his lips ached to press against hers. She beckoned to him again and whispered, “You want your happy ending, don’t you Ephesus? Here I am.”

Ephesus, locked under her spell, walked into the water, unwavering towards his supposed true love. Slerina placed her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. She heard his heart cry out the golden girl’s name. “Yes, its me.” Her voice slithered into his ear.

Ephesus felt the kiss, but wrenched himself away. “No. No…” he whispered. “This isn’t real.”

“And this doesn’t feel real to you?” the creature replied, kissing the hero more aggressively this time, wrapping him in her arms tightly. But Ephesus again pulled out of her slimy grasp.

“I know what real love is. I’ve felt it. And you? You give me nothing but pleasure. Love is pleasurable, Slerina, but there is so much more to it.”

“Is there?” Slerina replied, her smile fading to hatred. “How would you know, hero? You’ve never even met her.”

“That’s what you think.” Ephesus shot back. “But my heart guides me. And I will not fall prey to you.”

Slerina hissed, her dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “Well, hero, it looks like you won’t be getting your happy ending.”

Slerina pounced on Ephesus with all her strength and dragged him under the depths of the river. She glued her lips to his as the waters weighed them down, sucking his life away. But Ephesus heart was far stronger than her and he fought valiantly, struggling desperately for air. Amidst the struggle the waves spit out the skeletons of dead warriors also pulled into their watery graves. Suddenly, even as  the river closed in, Ephesus spotted a small dagger at the bottom of the sea floor. He went limp for one moment, allowing Slerina to release him, believing him dead. But it was enough, as Ephesus grabbed the dagger from the lake floor and shoved it deep into her chest. The waters churned wildly as Slerina let out a horrific shriek before collapsing beneath the bloody sea. Her true form was now betrayed, as the great beauty was revealed as a haggard, wrinkled old woman with long gray hair and a sunken face. Soaked, Ephesus pulled his golden ring from her wrinkled finger and swam back to the shore, stowing the bloody dagger onto his belt along with his fish hook.





 

Yet, his mind began playing tricks on him. As Ephesus slept on the forest floor, his dreams echoed with questions: Could he really do this? How would he climb the mountain? Would he survive? Would the princess accept his vow or laugh in his face? Ephesus opened his eyes at the dawn’s rise and peered into the golden light. Before him stood a fork in the road that had not existed the night before, with three dirt paths and a tall wooden sign whose names had rubbed off standing in the middle. The path to the right was covered by trees and shone through with sunlight and a sense of wonder. The path to the left was dark and misty, with a chilly wind blowing about and the sunlight fighting to pierce the darkness. The path in the middle was bare and grey, with dead trees littering the road and the skeletons of dead animals littered the road. The bloody trees behind the young man closed against him. No one stood before him but he heard a strange voice echo directly in his ear.

Choose, it said. The voice was calm and smooth but neither male or female.

Ephesus shouted aloud, “Who are you?”

There was no reply, but the trees seemed to inch closer and closer towards the hero.

The voice came again: Choose, mortal.

He shivered at the sound of their roots crawling against the earth and gazed fervently at each option. Syphus's words came back to the fisherman: Save her. He chose the left path. As morning wore on, Ephesus arrived at the base of the stone mountain. He could barely see the glint of Princess Elisa’s glowing ring through the grey clouds as the wind whipped his hair. Ephesus slung the bag of stones back over himself and took a deep breath. Here was his final obstacle.

Meanwhile, as Ephesus risked life and limb to reach the princess, the princess herself could wait no longer. Elisa knew she had to meet her champion face to face and ensure the two of them would live a happy life together, no matter the cost.  She felt incredibly guilty doing nothing while Ephesus risked his life for her. There was no way she was worthy of his love unless she was willing to do the same. But first, she had to conquer the beast that left her beset in her prison. In the dead of night, Princess Elisa picked the lock of her tower door. When the lock clicked, she threw on her cloak with a crossbow on her back and her sword at her side, racing down the endless steps of her tower and faced the stone door between herself and freedom. She opened the creaking wood and stepped delicately outside into the dark corridor. The light of the torches upon the walls cast eerie shadows that tricked her eyes and fogged her brain. But the young maid was determined to be free. As her footsteps echoed through the castle, Elisa’s memories swirled of her father; his anger, his ridicule, his fists...his words. She shuddered.

The princess gripped her bow and turned the corner. She stood before King Anphus’s bedchamber and snuck in without making a sound. In a large canopy bed laden with white sheets lay not the King, but his mistress, Meloria, a young chamber maid with bright blonde hair. She stirred in her sleep and her eyes flashed open. But Elisa lay her hand over the girl’s mouth and whispered, “Not a word.”

Meloria’s brown eyes bulged and she nodded.

“Where is he?” Elisa asked, her voice barely audible.



 

The girl pointed towards the opposite door inside the chamber and Elisa turned. She gripped her crossbow with a rigid hand and stepped forward. The door creaked open and there stood King Anphus, dressed in a black robe. His bright green eyes screened the room like a hawk searching for its prey and froze on his daughter. He snapped his fingers.

“Meloria. Out.” His voice, deep and smooth, echoed into the silence.

Meloria scampered out of the bed and ran down the hall. Elisa stayed still and faced her father.

“Elisa, relinquish your sword.” he commanded.

Elisa gripped it instead and was silent.

The King stared her down and said, “This is how you behave? Disobeying me has always been your pleasure. What, do you think I enjoy it?”

“You enjoy giving pain.” Elisa shot back, her voice powerful and smooth. “All my life, you saw me as something to hurt. I never saw the world beyond these walls. But I heard the cries of the men you burned, the weeping of the women you raped, the suffering of the people you rule.

Anphus stiffened in anger.  “Keeping those beneath us in line is the duty of a King. My blades speak more than any proclamation ever could.” Anphus was stoic and his voice was as deep as his contempt for the girl who stood before him.

“Yet here you stand, Father, with your reign poisoned by the blood of thousands and your heart blacker than the stone that built this prison. Have you no sympathy?”

Anphus hissed. “Sympathy promotes weakness, Elisa. But fear? Fear projects strength. Terror keeps those beneath us in line, as it will you.” The King unsheathed a dagger from behind his robes and held it close.

“Me, Father?” Elisa asked, her voice shaking. “You shackle me, slap me, berage me with foul words. You have kept me caged in this palace my entire life.  But now, I will be free.”

Anphus replied, his eyes brimming with macabre malice. “You desire freedom? You fool. The world will swallow you whole outside these walls. Your place is here, by my side. I follow my father’s ways, Elisa. One day, so will you.”

Before the princess could even blink, her father stepped forward and raised the dagger to his daughter’s throat. Elisa’s breath was caught in her chest; his arms tightened around her and he relished the feeling. “One day, you will understand.”

Anphus shoved his daughter and held her down upon the bed. Her crossbow fell but she fought back, her blue irises piercing his face.

“Go ahead. Kill me.” she hissed. “Just like you killed Mother.”

“Ryinra was weak, Elisa.” Anphus growled in Elisa’s ear. “She never knew her place. Neither do you.” He pressed the knife further into her skin leaving beads of blood.

“I know my place, Father. It’s right here.”




 

Elisa was too quick. As the words left her mouth, she wrenched herself from her father’s grasp, grabbed her crossbow and fired. The bolt shot through the air into her father’s chest. He backed into the doorway and dropped his knife, staggering and gasping for breath. Blood spurted from the wound as Elisa reloaded.  The King’s fury erupted at last as he struggled to rise, but Elisa drew her sword and slashed his legs unable to stop. Her shrieks of repressed anguish cut through his flesh with each blow. Anphus tried to rise but she grabbed an unlit torch and bashed his fists; the smell of burning flesh wafted through the room. He kept screaming nonetheless.“You whore! You will never see the light of day again! I am your father!”

As blood filled his lungs, Elisa simply stood over her father watching his life drained away. “You were right about one thing, Father. I am your daughter.”

The princess shot her bolt again, this time into the King’s screaming mouth. King Anphus’s eyes bulged before he choked on his own blood and fell to the floor, dead. Elisa dropped the crossbow into the dark room without a single backwards glance. As the guards raced after the princess, she climbed down another flight of stairs, threw open the door and relished the cold, crisp air blowing upon her face. With the calls of her father’s soldiers echoing behind her, Elisa began to climb the mountain, her clothes still soaked in her father’s blood, determined to earn her happy ending. Step by step, day after day, Ephesus and Elisa walked across the blistering cold and rainy terrain into darkness looking for each other. The fisherman came upon the dead skeletons of former princes who’d made this rigorous journey, now torn to pieces by the hungry beasts that lingered. Speaking of those beasts, Elisa heard footsteps behind her.

Sinister growling echoed in her ear and she pulled out her sword. Suddenly, savage wolves and bloodthirsty lions leapt out at her, hungry for fresh meat. With her heart pounding, Elisa slashed wildly at the beasts, her voice silenced in fear. The lion’s teeth glinted in the metal and her eyes widened in horror. The snow whirled around the wolves and the princess as she battled her way through the howling beasts. Her black hair froze in the blizzard as the wolves surrounded the girl, ripped her cloak to shreds and she raced into a dark cavern. But the wolves followed her and backed her into a corner. Smelling her father’s blood on her clothes, the wolves pounced closer and chomped achingly at her flesh.

In desperation, with her adrenaline pumping, Elisa shrieked and grabbed her fallen sword. She stabbed one wolf in the neck and the red blood spurted onto her face. But the remaining pack inched even closer. In despair, the princess sawed through her wrist, chopped off her right hand and threw it to the wolves, who hungrily chased after the meat and melted into the white mist. Elisa’s heart burned in her chest, pumping out the hot red blood onto the freezing snow. The ice numbed the pain in her arm and Elisa’s eyes filled with tears. Her head was spinning with images of her father’s body and her eyes glazed over. She started to weep but saw a figure standing before her. Fearful it was her father risen from the grave, Elisa tried to fight, but she passed out. Then, this stranger picked up the young maiden and carried her towards a hidden crevice deeper in the mountain.




 

Some time later, Elisa awoke disoriented and startled. She sat up and looked around, feeling the warm air surrounding her: she was in another cave covered by a deerskin blanket. Elisa stared intently at the fire crackling and the figure sitting behind it cooking a dead rat. Shadows danced on the wall and Elisa smelled smoke, looking to her left and seeing her savior. It was an old woman, grey and wrinkled with pale skin and silver hair. She smiled to the princess and wrapped herself in her own bear cloak. But Elisa drew her dagger anyway.

“Dear princess, do not fear.” the old woman said. “I have saved you. You will be healed.” The woman stoked the fire and started humming.

Elisa blinked and asked, “Who are you?”.She still kept her dagger at the ready.

“Sweet girl, I am Margaretha.” Her voice was quiet, supple and wispy.

Elisa was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever heard of this woman.“Who are you, Margaretha?”

“I have told you, Princess. I’m your rescuer. I have lived a prisoner of this cave for many years, hearing the stories men tell and listening to the will of the gods.”  

Margaretha gestured to the ceilings as the fire glowed bright and Elisa gazed fervently at the strange black symbols smeared across the cool mineral. They seemed to sway in the light and dance on the black stone. The old woman stoked the fire again and Elisa relinquished her weapon, realizing this was just an old reclusive woman. She gratefully took the bowl of broth Margaretha gave her; the liquid was warm, red and tasted of carrots. Elisa savored the heat tingling in her throat and felt her strength return almost instantly. She shoved the blanket off her body and sat before the fire.

“Margaretha,  why did you save me?” Elisa questioned.

Margaretha gave her a cold stare. “”Are you not grateful, Princess?”

“Of course I am. I just wondered...why.” Elisa replied.

The old woman was quiet as the wind howled. “I know how to recognize a desperate soul.” she finally replied. Elisa had to admit, this crazy old woman was right.

“Do you believe I should have abandoned you to the wolves?” Margaretha asked.

“Perhaps. After all…” Elisa fell silent, staring into the flame.

“You killed your father.” the old woman replied.

Elisa stared in shock at the aged ruin. “How did you…?”

“The blood on your cloak, Princess. It was king’s blood.” Magirtha held up the now torn cloak. “The gods are known to recognise king’s blood. Blood that runs in your veins.”

“The gods? What do they have to do with me?” Elisa asked.

“They are looking upon you with favor, Princess. They see what you saw, what the whole kingdom saw. Anphus was a dog who needed to be put down. You did the right thing.”

Maybe, Elisa thought.

“You have someone out there searching for you, do you not?” Margaretha grinned at the girl, who nodded with a smile.


“I...yes.” the girl replied. “We met long ago, and I sent out a messenger hoping to be freed from my father. He accepted the challenge and-”

“And you believe you must find him, don’t you?”

Again, Elisa nodded. Then, Margaretha hit her with the real question: “Why?”

Elisa was stunned. An eternity seemed to pass before her lips spoke again.

“I have to follow my heart, Margaretha. He is risking his life at my expense. What am I if I am not willing to do the same?”

“What are you indeed?” the old woman replied. Elisa turned towards the fire, the amber light illuminating her misty blue eyes. She sat there very quiet as her heart beat heavy with fear and trepidation. Magirtha then sat even closer to the girl and placed her hands over Elisa’s chest. The sound was faint at first, but then Elisa heard it: a heartbeat echoing throughout the cave, growing louder and louder.

She told the wise witch in a clear voice: “I’m a woman looking for happiness, Margaretha. What’s wrong with that?”

“You have a great heart, Princess. Full of love and nobility.” the old lady replied. “For that,  I will help you.”

Then, to Elisa’s shock and horror, Magirtha reached out towards the fire and the flames licked her skin. Elisa lunged forward to stop her, but the aged woman hissed and the girl recoiled. The drawings on the walls moved as the earth shook and Magirtha closed her eyes, her lips breaking into a serene smile. She began chanting a strange language before withdrawing her hand from the flames. Her hands glowing with heat and glory, she grasped Elisa’s shaking hand and placed a small object into it.

Elisa gazed tenderly at it: a small, glowing red seed. “What shall I do with this?”

Magirtha smiled. “As I said, the gods favor your intentions, Princess. It was no accident you met Ephesus at the festival that day; it was fated by the stars. The gods have kept me here to guide you, but you must not forget your people. They are in need of your wisdom and foresight. If and when you achieve your quest, plant this seed at the foot of the mountain. And you will bring to them untold joy.”

Elisa was awed by the gift, but something still troubled her. “If I fulfill my goal, what will happen to you, Magirtha? You cannot leave this mountain.”

“Do not worry for me, my child. I will be at peace knowing you’ve found happiness. The world is a cruel place, where good people suffer through terrible things. But you must live. Ascend this mountain, gaze upon the face of your champion and someday, happiness will be yours. Perhaps one day we will meet again. Farewell.”

In the blink of an eye, Elisa was returned to the mountainside, her amputated arm still slung in cloth and the blizzard still beating her mercilessly. She grasped her gift firmly, more determined that she would unite with her one true love. But as Ephesus and Elisa continued their ascent, their strength began to fail. The cold whipped the fisherman’s bones and the girl’s heart became weak as her cloth blew off her arm and blood began to pump from her appendage. His back cracked under the weight of his stones and her lips turned blue.


Through a darkened night, Ephesus crept higher and higher into the sky, his hands shaking as they grasped the bag of stones firmly. Then, standing low against the wind on a high cliff, he saw once more a strange figure in the distance. Tall, dark and twisted, the figure, clearly a male, walked forward apparently unaware of the blistering cold and flying snow.

“Hello?” Ephesus shouted to the stranger, his voice hissing against the shrieking wind. “Who are you?!”

The stranger walked forward and Ephesus gaze aghast with wide eyes, taking in this man’s appearance: his skin was dark as earth but his eyes were bright green. He was skinny and had a crooked smile. He wore tattered clothes and held in his hand a giant wooden staff. He also wore a pair of stag’s antlers on his head and a belt of wolves teeth. Strange, Ephesus thought.

“Who are you?” the fisherman asked again. The winds died down, howling indignantly, as the stranger held out his staff to the skies, the snow obeying his command and the blizzard died down. Ephesus shivered as the air warmed around the two and he gripped his fishing hook. The stranger smiled his toothy grin at the young man and waved his staff again. A kettle of tea over a blazing fire appeared before the men. Grateful, Ephesus dropped to his knees and wrung his hands before the heat. He stared in disbelief at this stranger.

“Who are you?” he asked for a third time.

“Orion.” the lanky lad replied. “Just, call me Orion.”

Ephesus shivered at the heat. “Thank you, Orion.”

Orion sat down on the stone and poured two cups of tea. “Ephesus…” he began.

But Ephesus interrupted. “You know my name? How?”

“I know many things. But you do not learn.” Orion replied.

“Learn what?”

“Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus was taken aback. “Excuse me?” His head was pounding trying to make sense of this imp.

Orion’s lips curled into a smile. “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”’

Ephesus was getting annoyed. “What are you playing at, you snake?”
Orion chuckled. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again. The crown rests upon the King’s head, it falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus stood in anger before this oddity of a man, threatening the riddler with his hook. “Listen, you fool, if you don’t start making sense, I’ll...I’ll…” Ephesus was suddenly lost in thought, caught off guard.

Orion raised his hand and simply said, “Answer my riddles, fisherman, and I’ll leave you in peace. If you cannot, I will leave you here to freeze and die. And you’ll need what I offer you to reach your prize.”


Ephesus sat back down. “Very well.”

Orion cleared his throat, repeating his line. “Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus thought to himself, This is ridiculous. But he still took a stab at it. “The cockatoo crows at the sun... because the world must awaken to a new day..”

“Go on.” Orion told him.

Ephesus cleared his throat. “The raven...the raven...he must fly at the moon because...because, well, I would guess for the opposite reason. He flies against the moon, black against white, just as loud, but letting himself know that the world must end for that day. He realizes that nothing lasts forever.”

Orion nodded. “Now, the next riddle: “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”

Ephesus puzzled over this phrase even longer. “Neither one, I think, enjoys creating...destruction? Nor do they overindulge their creations. They are trying to...keep balance, I think, between themselves...to...ugh...so balance is restored in the world.”

Orion continued. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again.  Why?”

Ephesus nodded. “Simple. Reincarnation. Life begets life. The snake lives forever. Life goes on.”

“Yet, the crown resting upon the King’s head, falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus took nearly a minute to figure out this line. “Power intoxicates all men, whether simple or wealthy. Men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon himself.”

Orion smiled. “Ephesus, you climb this mountain for the King’s daughter. No easy feat, but I applaud you. But remember: you will be counted on, depended on, to guide this kingdom, should you succeed. You will rule with her. Not above her nor below her. As the sun and moon stand side by side, so you must you. You will be balanced. Neither of you will be more or less powerful than the other.”

Ephesus’s heart beat so quickly he blurted out: “Please, Orion, tell me what I must do.”

Orion drank from his cup of tea. “The world must awaken to a new day, facing its troubles. And with every night they must put those troubles to rest. Trouble will resurface again and again and you must be prepared to strike it down, again and again. Finally, as you said, men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon themselves. Do not let that same fate befall you.”

Orion picked up his staff and stood before the fisherman, the winds picked back up again and the snow swirled endlessly around the wizard as he vanished. “Good luck, fisherman.” Ephesus felt the bitter cold slap his skin and shook his head in disbelief. Nonetheless, he continued his ascent.

Finally, after countless days and nights, Ephesus came to the top of the mountain just as Elisa also reached the summit. Exhausted, disoriented and frostbitten, Ephesus collapsed unconscious into the snow and Elisa passed out at the end of a trail of blood. Echoes of their voices blew on the wind to the other, but due to the blinding blizzard, the lovers were unaware they had fallen right in front of each other.  


Then, a cloaked figure swooped down from the heavens and carried the princess and the fisherman over the side of the mount back into the golden palace. As the two began to heal, lying in beds soaked with fever, Ephesus and Elisa slipped in and out of the world day after day, whispering each other’s names and seeing phantasms sway before their eyes. They lay in that twilight mist, on the brink between life and death, for many a dark night. But as the days flew by, the love between them remained strong and soon the two were met by an old friend.

Ephesus awakened first from his illness and saw a familiar face standing before him.

“Syphus!” the fisherman cried.

“Yes, my boy.” Syphus replied and embraced his friend.

Ephesus looked around in interest. “What happened?” he asked.

Syphus replied with misty eyes. “You collapsed on the mountain’s summit, Ephesus. I had to bring you here.”

“Where are we?” Ephesus looked around the room, but his head wa swimming so badly could not describe it. But he saw that it was peaceful, safe and warm and light filled the air. “Is Elisa…?”

“She’s waiting for you.” Syphus continued. Ephesus broke out into such a shout of joy that even Syphus was startled.

“I brought you to a better place, Ephesus. Somewhere you both could have your happy ending.”

Ephesus embraced his old friend with a grin. “Thank you.”

But then, the memories of all he had endured came rushing back and tears fell from his eyes. His sobs came strangled from his throat.

“Worry not about the past, my son.” Syphus told him empathetically. “Instead, look forward to your future, my son. You have fulfilled your goal. And your love is waiting.”

Ephesus dressed himself in a white tunic with golden accents and a long flowing white cape, eager to finally look into his lover’s eyes once more. He stood before a door as Syphus recited a couplet: “Ephesus, from Earth to the heavens you’ve endured dark times. Now, walk through the door and claim your prize.”

Elisa who had awakened in a separate chamber and she too saw a good friend: Margaretha.

When her confidant told her what had happened, the princess recalled what her arrogant father had said was false, as she knew it would be. Yet, Elisa too suffered grief for her experience; her cries pierced the empty silence, holding her head in her hands. Elisa was still fearful that Ephesus would not accept her as a lesser version of herself, since regaining her hand was impossible. But Margaretha assured the princess her beloved would look with his heart, not his eyes. Elisa still was eager to meet her champion and was dressed in a splendid white gown and veil. She stood before the same door and the old woman gave her a different couplet: “Elisa, from Earth below you have earned a heavenly bliss. Now, walk through the door and marry your prince.”

The door was opened and the two were thunderstruck.



 

There before Elisa stood her valiant champion in his gleaming silver armor. And before Ephesus stood the beautiful Princess in her glorious white gown. The shaking fisherman bowed before her as she smiled with happiness and curtsied in return.  The glow of candlelight alone illuminated their splendor and Ephesus laid the bag of stones at Elisa’s feet, now changed into rubies and amethysts. Here stood the most grueling test of all. The princess and the fisherman had crossed mysterious boundaries, braved torrentus changes in nature, suffered personal losses and beaten dangerous thrilling trials to reach this moment. But now, they had to speak as equals; their hearts had never beaten so quickly.

“It’s been a long time, Ephesus.” Elisa told him, quivering. She could barely speak, her heart was pounding so fast. “I’ve...I’ve missed you.”

Ephesus’s mouth was so dry he only smiled. But then his heart skipped a beat and he opened his mouth. “I thought of you everyday, Elisa.”

Elisa timidly asked, “How were you...able to fulfill my quest, my champion?”

With his heart pounding, Ephesus replied, “Your Highness, I carried those stones for you. But they were not stones to me. They were the pebbles I scattered across the water in my boat, hoping one day we could be together. Your forest was only a bridge to your heart...a bridge I had to offer a great sacrifice to cross. But it was the right cost, as I received a just reward.” Ephesus then knelt before Elisa and slipped his golden ring onto her finger. She giggled in delight.

“Elisa, your river was merely a puddle I walked through. This mountain was only one more step towards you...a step I would take ten times more.”

Ephesus rose and asked tenderly, “Princess, why did you want to find me?”

Elisa smiled and replied, “Ephesus, I lost my heart to you the first moment I saw you. If we were meant to be together, I wanted to be worthy of your love. But my determination...it made me blind and I paid a heavy price.” Elisa glanced down at her severed arm, which Ephesus tenderly held. She looked back at her beloved.

“But I would have gladly lost my head if it meant being with you. We were fated by the stars to be together.  Ephesus, of course I willaccept your love.”

Elisa stretched out her arms to the hero and Ephesus, holding her close, kissed his bride. The heavens burst open and the earth shook to its core; at last, the mountain that had separated the kingdom from its rulers crashed into nothing. Ephesus and Elisa were flown down from the mountain on the back of a large green dragon with silver wings. The newly freed villagers came together as, side by side, royal and commoner alike helped rebuild the golden palace, which filled with music , laughter and dancing in celebration of the sacred marriage. As Princess Elisa and Prince Ephesus whirled around the ballroom together, the music swooned and the townsfolk cheered. After the ball, the new royal couple entered their palace garden where they planted the magical red seed. It grew into a splendid glowing tree with golden leaves that always gave the village a bountiful harvest, protected forever by the beautiful dragon.

And so, the princess and her fisherman lived happily forever after.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom long ago, there was a powerful king named Anphus who lived in a golden castle on the other side of a mountain. He had long dark hair, bronze skin and terrifying green eyes. His spirited daughter, Princess Elisa, was imprisoned within the castle’s highest tower to guard her from the world. Like her father, Elisa had dark features but her eyes were blue and and her heart was kind. King Anphus had lost his lovely Queen, Ryinra, years before, but the cause of her death was kept secret.  He ruled over a small, prosperous kingdom; but his subjects all lived in fear of his heinous wrath, as his rage was legendary and his punishments for dishonor infamous. The King beheaded the soldiers he found disgraceful and burned the fields of farmers who could not supply their crops. His soldiers stole away peasant girls who refused their advances and drowned fisherman who did not fill their King’s quota. One such fisherman was named Ephesus; he was kind, gracious and enjoyed his work, yet he too held disdain for the king. But, the fisherman also harbored a secret desire for adventure, fueled by an intense, deep love for the King’s sequestered daughter.

The two had met briefly long ago, at that time in life when youth is barely grasping at adulthood, between childhood and independence. They’d attended a great festival celebrating Queen Ryinra’s birthday and the village had been filled with music, food and drink lasting through the night; men and women wore colorful masks with lavish costumes and danced to lyrical music echoing through the forest. Ephesus had attended the celebration hoping to compete in a great tournament, pitting wit against brawn in a contest of skill at arms. Unfortunately, the fisherman had little training in combat then and earned black and blue bruises for his ambition, falling from his horse disgraced in the jousting tournament. That evening, Ephesus was nursing his wounds and standing on a hill far from the festival, overlooking the view. To his surprise, a young girl with dark hair and luminous blue eyes walked over to him and smiled. She was clothed as a servant in a plain brown dress and black cloak.

“Hello.” Ephesus said. He smiled at her with crooked teeth, knocked free by his own horse.

“Hello.” Elisa replied. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s nothing.” Ephesus slapped a cold steak on his blackened eye and sighed.

“At least you made it out ok.” Elisa said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ephesus.” he replied. “I live in the village. My father is...was, a fisherman. What is your name?”

“My name is...Ellie.” the girl replied. “I live out in the fields. My family tends the sheep.”

The two talked back and forth for awhile, looking out beyond the hills, hearing the echoes of the cheering crowds and festive music. Then, Elisa turned towards Ephesus and winced at the sight of his eye. “I’m sorry you were hurt. I’ve always hated these tournaments.”

“Why?” Ephesus interjected. “The men ride astride their horses, charging into battle with swords drawn and people cheering and the ladies throwing flowers at him if he wins. Sounds great to me.”





 

“Yes, but those men have a choice.” Elisa replied. “They can do something great. I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Ephesus asked.

Elisa was quiet before she answered. “My father is forcing me to follow...his way. He says I will grow up to become like him. But he’s a terrible man. And I can’t disobey him...” She trailed off.

“That’s...that’s awful.” Ephesus replied. “I’m sorry. I...well…”

“Go on.” Elisa told him

“My father wasn’t so grand either. He taught me his trade, sure, but fishing is all I ever got to do. I  never even got to scrap against other boys. That’s why I competed in the tournament today. So I could make something of myself. Surely, your father would understand you wanting that too.”

“But I can’t defy him. He’s too...he’s-”

“Who?” Ephesus interjected.

Elisa again held her silence, staring up at the stars. But then Ephesus looked and saw Elisa was wearing a gold chain emblazoned with a ruby pendant and jade stones. His eyes bulged, realizing the truth and he knelt before the girl.

“Your Highness! Your father is the-” Ephesus’s lips were stopped as Elisa swooped down putting her hand over his mouth. The two blushed violently before the girl spoke again, looking wildly in all directions.

“Please don’t say anything. I’m sorry. I have to go.” She turned away about to leave, but Ephesus grabbed her hand. As they touched under the moonless sky, storm clouds gathered in the distance and thunder rumbled. Elisa gave him a wistful smile and gave him from her pocket a handkerchief embroidered with the royal crest. “You fought well today. Remember that.” She turned, heading back into the woods.

“Wait!” Ephesus called. “Then, to his shock, a single word shot from his lips: “Elisa!”

Elisa turned, her heart pounding when he said her true name.

He said to her, “M’lady, you have a choice. Choose...yourself.”

Elisa simply stared at him with those large, luminous blue eyes.

“I hope to see you again, Your Highness.” Ephesus told her.

“And I you.” she softly replied.

As Elisa made her way into the wood, Ephesus called back to her: “And I promise, m’lady, your secret is safe  with me.”

Elisa only smiled as a twinge of sadness crossed her eyes before disappearing into the night. Years later, Queen Ryinra was dead and the land lived in fear of its tyrannical king. As for Ephesus, he grew up fishing and sailing on the lake at sunrise, watching the golden light reflect off the mountain fortress. He believed meeting the princess was fated by the stars and dreamt of the day when he would see her again; when he could save her. He also secretly worked at mastering the art of combat so he would protect what was his.



 

One fateful day, the princess secretly sent a servant with a heavy bag of stones to the village, which was on the other side of the mountain. As the entire town gathered in the square, the servant dutifully delivered the message from the maiden: I am desperate for freedom. The King’s days are numbered. Any man who can lift this bag of stones, cross the realm and lay them at my doorstep may wed me. Now, the mountain that bordered the King’s palace was no mere mountain. It kissed the sky and penetrated the clouds. The base was rooted in the part of the kingdom that saw many storms as well as savage beasts and snowy blizzards. It also lay at the edge of a forest of red trees that bordered a cool and clear river. Here, imprisoned on the other side of the stone castle, the princess awaited her champion. Many a man in the village tried his luck at lifting the heavy bag of stones, with most believing the challenge too great; but not even the town's strongest warrior could lift it off the ground.

Ephesus watched day after day as each man stepped forward to see if he could lift the bag of stones. Even though the chance to see Elisa again tugged at his heartstrings, Ephesus repressed the desire to take the stones, adamant that he was unworthy. What chance did a common fisherman like have to save a beautiful princess? Then, one day, as yet another man tried to lift the bag, Ephesus stood watching. Sneaking amidst the crowds, the messenger who’d brought the princess’s challenge secretly dropped into Ephesus’s a note that read: Make your choice.

As the sun began to set, crowds of drunken stronger noblemen laughed at again another failure. Soon, they turned on the common fisherman, jesting that he too had no chance. As their voices rose against him, Ephesus’s impulsive anger got the best of him, and he cried out to the townsfolk: “See here! I will take the stones!”

As the crowd watched, falling over themselves with laughter, Ephesus stepped forward. A dark storm soon rose over the mountain with the black clouds sweeping across the sky. In an instant, the fisherman effortlessly slung the bag over his shoulders, with his back bent from the weight. The laughter died. With his bag of stones on his back, a sack of bread on his hip and his fishing hook in his hand, Ephesus resolved to make the slow, painful ascent through the woods, over the river and up the mountain towards Princess Elisa. As the sun set in the west, Ephesus crossed into the dark and twisted forest and was soon lost. The numerous halls of trees twisted into a dizzying labyrinth that tangled and torrented the poor fisherman. His bag of stones weighed heavily on his back and night fell. Ephesus’s heart rattled with adrenaline and he started a fire to keep warm. But as the fire began to glow, a hooded figure wearing a red cloak emerged from the blood red trees.

“Who’s there?” Ephesus called out, his voice echoing in the darkness. There was no reply, but the intruder inched closer. When he unfolded his hands, revealing a stick, Ephesus grabbed his spear and prepared to throw it at the intruder. But then he heard a voice.

“Wait!”

The figure removed his hood and Ephesus relented. The voice was breathy and feeble, but full of knowledge.



 

“Syphus?” Ephesus peered into the trees and the stranger removed his hood, revealing a wrinkled face, stubborn brow and brown warm eyes glowing in the fire’s light. The man’s long white beard also tumbled to the forest floor. Ephesus breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re lucky I’m patient, Syphus.” he said, taking the man under his arm to sit towards the fire.

“Oh, my boy, to have patience is one thing. But it is in how you use it that results in good or bad luck.” Syphus sat beside the young man as Ephesus prepared a kettle of tea.

“So, what brings you to the Red Wood, Ephesus? Wood sprites? Drunken soldiers? Another mythical being you insist you saw on your boat?”

“How about a quest?” Ephesus answered, pouring the old man a cup.

Syphus shook his head with a raised eyebrow. “What are you up to, boy?”

Ephesus grinned. “Syphus, you know the princess has sent forth a decree. If a man can cross the wood and bring her this bag of stones, she'll wed him.”

“And you believe you will fulfill her quest?” Syphus questioned.

“I can do more than that, my friend." Ephesus replied. "The princess also wrote of the King, that his days are numbered. You know of my love for her, that I know her like no one else. And you know I will never give up. The King is a fiend, Syphus. He’s carved wounds into our home that still haven’t healed. I mean, you remember when the Queen-”

“Yes, boy. I remember.”  Syphus cut him off, his eyes suddenly dark. “The Queen…” He sighed, staring into the fire’s glow. The fire crackled in the silence before Ephesus spoke again, his voice low.

“Elisa freedom, Syphus, as does her kingdom. I want to give her what she deserves.”

Syphus sighed. “T’was long ago I knew of your desires, Ephesus. A young girl can set one’s heart ablaze faster than you can spark this fire. But be warned, boy: love leads down a twisted path. Your fire will burn for only so long before-”

But before Syphus could continue, the fire was doused; but not by water. It was vanquished by an Orif, an evil ogre that lived amongst the trees eager to chew on human flesh. He lunged for the two men and caught the horrified Syphus in his claws. Syphus screamed in anguish as the oirf slashed his neck, threw him into the trees and dove for the fisherman. But Ephesus grabbed his fishing hook and speared the fiend in his belly. Blood and bile spurted out of the creature’s body and onto the red bark of the tree.

Yet, even as his howl pierced the night, the orif continued to fight. His skin refused to break against steel, his foul breath filled Ephesus’s nose and his filthy claws scraped the hero's arms and torso. The young man was frantic for a way to conquer the beast and grabbed a discarded oak branch. Ephesus set it ablaze and watched in horror as the monster’s eyes glowed in the light until his entire body was bathed in flame.  Finally, with his scream echoing into the wood, the ogre tumbled lifeless to the forest floor.

The fisherman extinguished the flames and caught his breath. With his heart still pounding, Ephesus ran to Syphus’s side, hoping to save him.

“My boy…” Syphus groaned, his heart slowing and his breath no more than a whisper.



 

“Don’t talk, don’t talk.” Ephesus rebuked, trying to stem the red river flowing out of Syphus’s chest. “You’re going to be alright. Syphus, look at me.”

The old man’s eyes looked up, as his shaking hand reached out. He gripped Ephesus’s hand and placed into it a golden ring set with a jade stone.

That small, still strong voice came again.“A guide, m’boy. The closer you get...the brighter it glows.” he whispered. “Save her.”

His eyes filling with tears, Ephesus nodded. “Thank you, my friend.”

Syphus smiled and breathed his last breath. Ephesus held him close in the dark night that passed. By dawn’s rise, the young man buried the old under a fallen red tree, inscribing upon the bark: . It took Ephesus the rest of the day to cross the forest, but as a second night fell, he knew this time to keep his guard up.

As Ephesus made his way towards the mystical river, Princess Elisa stared at him from a magic mirror inside her golden tower. She was reminded of his nobility those years ago and was so touched by how far he was willing to go, she knew he was going to marry her even if it killed him. Torn, Elisa felt there was more she could do than watch his journey from her golden prison. But her father angrily rebuked her, declaring with a barrage of slaps that if she dared travel across the mountain, he would see to it that she never returned. So Princess Elisa mournfully relented, spending a dark, sleepless night staring intently out her tower window.

As the night wore on, Ephesus came upon the cool, clear misty lake that was as still as glass. His breath cooled and his heart slowed to a simple pulse. The air was still and he dared not move. Suddenly, the water began to ripple and sway before him. As the mist parted, a figure rose from the waves. Ephesus stood resolute and fearful, holding his fishing spear aloft. This mythical figure walked towards him in shadow but Ephesus lit a torch, exposing her face. This enchanting creature was Slerina, a siren cursed to the waves whose lilting voice led even the strongest sailor to a watery grave. Slerina’s skin was dark blue and her black tangled hair was matted with crabs, fish and seaweed. Her dress was decorated with water lilies, the skeletons of soldiers and kimono fish. She smiled a gleaming grin at Ephesus and his skin crawled. Her black eyes glinted in the misty river; she was beautifully terrifying.

But the fisherman emboldened his courage and said, “Spirit of the river, I ask to cross.”

Slerina laughed and Ephesus felt his spine shiver as she spoke. “Is that all?”

Her teeth gleamed white in the darkness and her crabs crawled around her skin. She walked slowly around Ephesus, stroking his shoulders and kissing him sweetly.

Ephesus nodded, resolute as always.

“I hear you want more than that, boy.” Slerina hissed. “You want the golden girl. That precious jewel in her golden tower awaiting her handsome champion. You want what all heroes want: to live happily ever after.” The sarcasm dripped from her voice like the water that surrounded the two and Ephesus swallowed hard. Slerina was known for her quick hands and stole the magical ring from the fisherman’s pocket before he could even notice.

 

“I will not fall prey to your deceptions, you fiend.” Ephesus proclaimed, his hands shaking.

“Really? You’re immune to me?” Slerina hissed.

Then, Slerina raised her arms and the waters rose around her. Ephesus blocked his sight as he feared she would turn into a hideous creature. But when he raised his eyes, it was Princess Elisa, his golden girl bathed in her luminescent glory, who met his gaze. Ephesus was so overwhelmed by her glowing beauty he dropped his sword at the base of the river. She smiled at him and beckoned the silent Ephesus forward. “Like me more now, fisherman?”

Ephesus was mute as his lips ached to press against hers. She beckoned to him again and whispered, “You want your happy ending, don’t you Ephesus? Here I am.”

Ephesus, locked under her spell, walked into the water, unwavering towards his supposed true love. Slerina placed her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. She heard his heart cry out the golden girl’s name. “Yes, its me.” Her voice slithered into his ear.

Ephesus felt the kiss, but wrenched himself away. “No. No…” he whispered. “This isn’t real.”

“And this doesn’t feel real to you?” the creature replied, kissing the hero more aggressively this time, wrapping him in her arms tightly. But Ephesus again pulled out of her slimy grasp.

“I know what real love is. I’ve felt it. And you? You give me nothing but pleasure. Love is pleasurable, Slerina, but there is so much more to it.”

“Is there?” Slerina replied, her smile fading to hatred. “How would you know, hero? You’ve never even met her.”

“That’s what you think.” Ephesus shot back. “But my heart guides me. And I will not fall prey to you.”

Slerina hissed, her dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “Well, hero, it looks like you won’t be getting your happy ending.”

Slerina pounced on Ephesus with all her strength and dragged him under the depths of the river. She glued her lips to his as the waters weighed them down, sucking his life away. But Ephesus heart was far stronger than her and he fought valiantly, struggling desperately for air. Amidst the struggle the waves spit out the skeletons of dead warriors also pulled into their watery graves. Suddenly, even as  the river closed in, Ephesus spotted a small dagger at the bottom of the sea floor. He went limp for one moment, allowing Slerina to release him, believing him dead. But it was enough, as Ephesus grabbed the dagger from the lake floor and shoved it deep into her chest. The waters churned wildly as Slerina let out a horrific shriek before collapsing beneath the bloody sea. Her true form was now betrayed, as the great beauty was revealed as a haggard, wrinkled old woman with long gray hair and a sunken face. Soaked, Ephesus pulled his golden ring from her wrinkled finger and swam back to the shore, stowing the bloody dagger onto his belt along with his fish hook.





 

Yet, his mind began playing tricks on him. As Ephesus slept on the forest floor, his dreams echoed with questions: Could he really do this? How would he climb the mountain? Would he survive? Would the princess accept his vow or laugh in his face? Ephesus opened his eyes at the dawn’s rise and peered into the golden light. Before him stood a fork in the road that had not existed the night before, with three dirt paths and a tall wooden sign whose names had rubbed off standing in the middle. The path to the right was covered by trees and shone through with sunlight and a sense of wonder. The path to the left was dark and misty, with a chilly wind blowing about and the sunlight fighting to pierce the darkness. The path in the middle was bare and grey, with dead trees littering the road and the skeletons of dead animals littered the road. The bloody trees behind the young man closed against him. No one stood before him but he heard a strange voice echo directly in his ear.

Choose, it said. The voice was calm and smooth but neither male or female.

Ephesus shouted aloud, “Who are you?”

There was no reply, but the trees seemed to inch closer and closer towards the hero.

The voice came again: Choose, mortal.

He shivered at the sound of their roots crawling against the earth and gazed fervently at each option. Syphus's words came back to the fisherman: Save her. He chose the left path. As morning wore on, Ephesus arrived at the base of the stone mountain. He could barely see the glint of Princess Elisa’s glowing ring through the grey clouds as the wind whipped his hair. Ephesus slung the bag of stones back over himself and took a deep breath. Here was his final obstacle.

Meanwhile, as Ephesus risked life and limb to reach the princess, the princess herself could wait no longer. Elisa knew she had to meet her champion face to face and ensure the two of them would live a happy life together, no matter the cost.  She felt incredibly guilty doing nothing while Ephesus risked his life for her. There was no way she was worthy of his love unless she was willing to do the same. But first, she had to conquer the beast that left her beset in her prison. In the dead of night, Princess Elisa picked the lock of her tower door. When the lock clicked, she threw on her cloak with a crossbow on her back and her sword at her side, racing down the endless steps of her tower and faced the stone door between herself and freedom. She opened the creaking wood and stepped delicately outside into the dark corridor. The light of the torches upon the walls cast eerie shadows that tricked her eyes and fogged her brain. But the young maid was determined to be free. As her footsteps echoed through the castle, Elisa’s memories swirled of her father; his anger, his ridicule, his fists...his words. She shuddered.

The princess gripped her bow and turned the corner. She stood before King Anphus’s bedchamber and snuck in without making a sound. In a large canopy bed laden with white sheets lay not the King, but his mistress, Meloria, a young chamber maid with bright blonde hair. She stirred in her sleep and her eyes flashed open. But Elisa lay her hand over the girl’s mouth and whispered, “Not a word.”

Meloria’s brown eyes bulged and she nodded.

“Where is he?” Elisa asked, her voice barely audible.



 

The girl pointed towards the opposite door inside the chamber and Elisa turned. She gripped her crossbow with a rigid hand and stepped forward. The door creaked open and there stood King Anphus, dressed in a black robe. His bright green eyes screened the room like a hawk searching for its prey and froze on his daughter. He snapped his fingers.

“Meloria. Out.” His voice, deep and smooth, echoed into the silence.

Meloria scampered out of the bed and ran down the hall. Elisa stayed still and faced her father.

“Elisa, relinquish your sword.” he commanded.

Elisa gripped it instead and was silent.

The King stared her down and said, “This is how you behave? Disobeying me has always been your pleasure. What, do you think I enjoy it?”

“You enjoy giving pain.” Elisa shot back, her voice powerful and smooth. “All my life, you saw me as something to hurt. I never saw the world beyond these walls. But I heard the cries of the men you burned, the weeping of the women you raped, the suffering of the people you rule.

Anphus stiffened in anger.  “Keeping those beneath us in line is the duty of a King. My blades speak more than any proclamation ever could.” Anphus was stoic and his voice was as deep as his contempt for the girl who stood before him.

“Yet here you stand, , with your reign poisoned by the blood of thousands and your heart blacker than the stone that built this prison. Have you no sympathy?”

Anphus hissed. “Sympathy promotes Elisa. But fear? Fear projects strength. Terror keeps those beneath us in line, as it will you.” The King unsheathed a dagger from behind his robes and held it close.

“Me, Father?” Elisa asked, her voice shaking. “You shackle me, slap me, berage me with foul words. You have kept me caged in this palace my entire life.  But now, I will be free.”

Anphus replied, his eyes brimming with macabre malice. “You desire freedom? You fool. The world will swallow you whole outside these walls. Your place is here, by my side. I follow my father’s ways, Elisa. One day, so will you.”

Before the princess could even blink, her father stepped forward and raised the dagger to his daughter’s throat. Elisa’s breath was caught in her chest; his arms tightened around her and he relished the feeling. “One day, you will understand.”

Anphus shoved his daughter and held her down upon the bed. Her crossbow fell but she fought back, her blue irises piercing his face.

“Go ahead. Kill me.” she hissed. “Just like you killed Mother.”

“Ryinra was weak, Elisa.” Anphus growled in Elisa’s ear. “She never knew her place. Neither do you.” He pressed the knife further into her skin leaving beads of blood.

“I know my place, Father. It’s right here.”




 

Elisa was too quick. As the words left her mouth, she wrenched herself from her father’s grasp, grabbed her crossbow and fired. The bolt shot through the air into her father’s chest. He backed into the doorway and dropped his knife, staggering and gasping for breath. Blood spurted from the wound as Elisa reloaded.  The King’s fury erupted at last as he struggled to rise, but Elisa drew her sword and slashed his legs unable to stop. Her shrieks of repressed anguish cut through his flesh with each blow. Anphus tried to rise but she grabbed an unlit torch and bashed his fists; the smell of burning flesh wafted through the room. He kept screaming nonetheless.“You whore! You will never see the light of day again! I am your father!”

As blood filled his lungs, Elisa simply stood over her father watching his life drained away. “You were right about one thing, Father. I am your daughter.”

The princess shot her bolt again, this time into the King’s screaming mouth. King Anphus’s eyes bulged before he choked on his own blood and fell to the floor, dead. Elisa dropped the crossbow into the dark room without a single backwards glance. As the guards raced after the princess, she climbed down another flight of stairs, threw open the door and relished the cold, crisp air blowing upon her face. With the calls of her father’s soldiers echoing behind her, Elisa began to climb the mountain, her clothes still soaked in her father’s blood, determined to earn her happy ending. Step by step, day after day, Ephesus and Elisa walked across the blistering cold and rainy terrain into darkness looking for each other. The fisherman came upon the dead skeletons of former princes who’d made this rigorous journey, now torn to pieces by the hungry beasts that lingered. Speaking of those beasts, Elisa heard footsteps behind her.

Sinister growling echoed in her ear and she pulled out her sword. Suddenly, savage wolves and bloodthirsty lions leapt out at her, hungry for fresh meat. With her heart pounding, Elisa slashed wildly at the beasts, her voice silenced in fear. The lion’s teeth glinted in the metal and her eyes widened in horror. The snow whirled around the wolves and the princess as she battled her way through the howling beasts. Her black hair froze in the blizzard as the wolves surrounded the girl, ripped her cloak to shreds and she raced into a dark cavern. But the wolves followed her and backed her into a corner. Smelling her father’s blood on her clothes, the wolves pounced closer and chomped achingly at her flesh.

In desperation, with her adrenaline pumping, Elisa shrieked and grabbed her fallen sword. She stabbed one wolf in the neck and the red blood spurted onto her face. But the remaining pack inched even closer. In despair, the princess sawed through her wrist, chopped off her right hand and threw it to the wolves, who hungrily chased after the meat and melted into the white mist. Elisa’s heart burned in her chest, pumping out the hot red blood onto the freezing snow. The ice numbed the pain in her arm and Elisa’s eyes filled with tears. Her head was spinning with images of her father’s body and her eyes glazed over. She started to weep but saw a figure standing before her. Fearful it was her father risen from the grave, Elisa tried to fight, but she passed out. Then, this stranger picked up the young maiden and carried her towards a hidden crevice deeper in the mountain.




 

Some time later, Elisa awoke disoriented and startled. She sat up and looked around, feeling the warm air surrounding her: she was in another cave covered by a deerskin blanket. Elisa stared intently at the fire crackling and the figure sitting behind it cooking a dead rat. Shadows danced on the wall and Elisa smelled smoke, looking to her left and seeing her savior. It was an old woman, grey and wrinkled with pale skin and silver hair. She smiled to the princess and wrapped herself in her own bear cloak. But Elisa drew her dagger anyway.

“Dear princess, do not fear.” the old woman said. “I have saved you. You will be healed.” The woman stoked the fire and started humming.

Elisa blinked and asked, “Who are you?”.She still kept her dagger at the ready.

“Sweet girl, I am Margaretha.” Her voice was quiet, supple and wispy.

Elisa was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever heard of this woman.“Who are you, Margaretha?”

“I have told you, Princess. I’m your rescuer. I have lived a prisoner of this cave for many years, hearing the stories men tell and listening to the will of the gods.”  

Margaretha gestured to the ceilings as the fire glowed bright and Elisa gazed fervently at the strange black symbols smeared across the cool mineral. They seemed to sway in the light and dance on the black stone. The old woman stoked the fire again and Elisa relinquished her weapon, realizing this was just an old reclusive woman. She gratefully took the bowl of broth Margaretha gave her; the liquid was warm, red and tasted of carrots. Elisa savored the heat tingling in her throat and felt her strength return almost instantly. She shoved the blanket off her body and sat before the fire.

“Margaretha,  why did you save me?” Elisa questioned.

Margaretha gave her a cold stare. “”Are you not grateful, Princess?”

“Of course I am. I just wondered...why.” Elisa replied.

The old woman was quiet as the wind howled. “I know how to recognize a desperate soul.” she finally replied. Elisa had to admit, this crazy old woman was right.

“Do you believe I should have abandoned you to the wolves?” Margaretha asked.

“Perhaps. After all…” Elisa fell silent, staring into the flame.

“You killed your father.” the old woman replied.

Elisa stared in shock at the aged ruin. “How did you…?”

“The blood on your cloak, Princess. It was king’s blood.” Magirtha held up the now torn cloak. “The gods are known to recognise king’s blood. Blood that runs in your veins.”

“The gods? What do they have to do with me?” Elisa asked.

“They are looking upon you with favor, Princess. They see what you saw, what the whole kingdom saw. Anphus was a dog who needed to be put down. You did the right thing.”

Maybe, Elisa thought.

“You have someone out there searching for you, do you not?” Margaretha grinned at the girl, who nodded with a smile.

 

“I...yes.” the girl replied. “We met long ago, and I sent out a messenger hoping to be freed from my father. He accepted the challenge and-”

“And you believe you must find him, don’t you?”

Again, Elisa nodded. Then, Margaretha hit her with the real question: “Why?”

Elisa was stunned. An eternity seemed to pass before her lips spoke again.

“I have to follow my heart, Margaretha. He is risking his life at my expense. What am I if I am not willing to do the same?”

“What are you indeed?” the old woman replied. Elisa turned towards the fire, the amber light illuminating her misty blue eyes. She sat there very quiet as her heart beat heavy with fear and trepidation. Magirtha then sat even closer to the girl and placed her hands over Elisa’s chest. The sound was faint at first, but then Elisa heard it: a heartbeat echoing throughout the cave, growing louder and louder.

She told the wise witch in a clear voice: “I’m a woman looking for happiness, Margaretha. What’s wrong with that?”

“You have a great heart, Princess. Full of love and nobility.” the old lady replied. “For that,  I will help you.”

Then, to Elisa’s shock and horror, Magirtha reached out towards the fire and the flames licked her skin. Elisa lunged forward to stop her, but the aged woman hissed and the girl recoiled. The drawings on the walls moved as the earth shook and Magirtha closed her eyes, her lips breaking into a serene smile. She began chanting a strange language before withdrawing her hand from the flames. Her hands glowing with heat and glory, she grasped Elisa’s shaking hand and placed a small object into it.

Elisa gazed tenderly at it: a small, glowing red seed. “What shall I do with this?”

Magirtha smiled. “As I said, the gods favor your intentions, Princess. It was no accident you met Ephesus at the festival that day; it was fated by the stars. The gods have kept me here to guide you, but you must not forget your people. They are in need of your wisdom and foresight. If and when you achieve your quest, plant this seed at the foot of the mountain. And you will bring to them untold joy.”

Elisa was awed by the gift, but something still troubled her. “If I fulfill my goal, what will happen to you, Magirtha? You cannot leave this mountain.”

 “Do not worry for me, my child. I will be at peace knowing you’ve found happiness. The world is a cruel place, where good people suffer through terrible things. But you must live. Ascend this mountain, gaze upon the face of your champion and someday, happiness will be yours. Perhaps one day we will meet again. Farewell.”

In the blink of an eye, Elisa was returned to the mountainside, her amputated arm still slung in cloth and the blizzard still beating her mercilessly. She grasped her gift firmly, more determined that she would unite with her one true love. But as Ephesus and Elisa continued their ascent, their strength began to fail. The cold whipped the fisherman’s bones and the girl’s heart became weak as her cloth blew off her arm and blood began to pump from her appendage. His back cracked under the weight of his stones and her lips turned blue.

 

Through a darkened night, Ephesus crept higher and higher into the sky, his hands shaking as they grasped the bag of stones firmly. Then, standing low against the wind on a high cliff, he saw once more a strange figure in the distance. Tall, dark and twisted, the figure, clearly a male, walked forward apparently unaware of the blistering cold and flying snow.

“Hello?” Ephesus shouted to the stranger, his voice hissing against the shrieking wind. “Who are you?!”

The stranger walked forward and Ephesus gaze aghast with wide eyes, taking in this man’s appearance: his skin was dark as earth but his eyes were bright green. He was skinny and had a crooked smile. He wore tattered clothes and held in his hand a giant wooden staff. He also wore a pair of stag’s antlers on his head and a belt of wolves teeth. Strange, Ephesus thought.

“Who are you?” the fisherman asked again. The winds died down, howling indignantly, as the stranger held out his staff to the skies, the snow obeying his command and the blizzard died down. Ephesus shivered as the air warmed around the two and he gripped his fishing hook. The stranger smiled his toothy grin at the young man and waved his staff again. A kettle of tea over a blazing fire appeared before the men. Grateful, Ephesus dropped to his knees and wrung his hands before the heat. He stared in disbelief at this stranger.

“Who are you?” he asked for a third time.

“Orion.” the lanky lad replied. “Just, call me Orion.”

Ephesus shivered at the heat. “Thank you, Orion.”

Orion sat down on the stone and poured two cups of tea. “Ephesus…” he began.

But Ephesus interrupted. “You know my name? How?”

“I know many things. But you do not learn.” Orion replied.

 “Learn what?”

“Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus was taken aback. “Excuse me?” His head was pounding trying to make sense of this imp.

Orion’s lips curled into a smile. “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”’

Ephesus was getting annoyed. “What are you playing at, you snake?”
Orion chuckled. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again. The crown rests upon the King’s head, it falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus stood in anger before this oddity of a man, threatening the riddler with his hook. “Listen, you fool, if you don’t start making sense, I’ll...I’ll…” Ephesus was suddenly lost in thought, caught off guard.

Orion raised his hand and simply said, “Answer my riddles, fisherman, and I’ll leave you in peace. If you cannot, I will leave you here to freeze and die. And you’ll need what I offer you to reach your prize.”

 

Ephesus sat back down. “Very well.”

Orion cleared his throat, repeating his line. “Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus thought to himself, This is ridiculous. But he still took a stab at it. “The cockatoo crows at the sun... because the world must awaken to a new day..”

“Go on.” Orion told him.

Ephesus cleared his throat. “The raven...the raven...he must fly at the moon because...because, well, I would guess for the opposite reason. He flies against the moon, black against white, just as loud, but letting himself know that the world must end for that day. He realizes that nothing lasts forever.”

Orion nodded. “Now, the next riddle: “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”

Ephesus puzzled over this phrase even longer. “Neither one, I think, enjoys creating...destruction? Nor do they overindulge their creations. They are trying to...keep balance, I think, between themselves...to...ugh...so balance is restored in the world.”

Orion continued. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again.  Why?”

Ephesus nodded. “Simple. Reincarnation. Life begets life. The snake lives forever. Life goes on.”

“Yet, the crown resting upon the King’s head, falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus took nearly a minute to figure out this line. “Power intoxicates all men, whether simple or wealthy. Men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon himself.”

Orion smiled. “Ephesus, you climb this mountain for the King’s daughter. No easy feat, but I applaud you. But remember: you will be counted on, depended on, to guide this kingdom, should you succeed. You will rule with her. Not above her nor below her. As the sun and moon stand side by side, so you must you. You will be balanced. Neither of you will be more or less powerful than the other.”

Ephesus’s heart beat so quickly he blurted out: “Please, Orion, tell me what I must do.”

Orion drank from his cup of tea. “The world must awaken to a new day, facing its troubles. And with every night they must put those troubles to rest. Trouble will resurface again and again and you must be prepared to strike it down, again and again. Finally, as you said, men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon themselves. Do not let that same fate befall you.”

Orion picked up his staff and stood before the fisherman, the winds picked back up again and the snow swirled endlessly around the wizard as he vanished. “Good luck, fisherman.” Ephesus felt the bitter cold slap his skin and shook his head in disbelief. Nonetheless, he continued his ascent.

Finally, after countless days and nights, Ephesus came to the top of the mountain just as Elisa also reached the summit. Exhausted, disoriented and frostbitten, Ephesus collapsed unconscious into the snow and Elisa passed out at the end of a trail of blood. Echoes of their voices blew on the wind to the other, but due to the blinding blizzard, the lovers were unaware they had fallen right in front of each other.  

 

Then, a cloaked figure swooped down from the heavens and carried the princess and the fisherman over the side of the mount back into the golden palace. As the two began to heal, lying in beds soaked with fever, Ephesus and Elisa slipped in and out of the world day after day, whispering each other’s names and seeing phantasms sway before their eyes. They lay in that twilight mist, on the brink between life and death, for many a dark night. But as the days flew by, the love between them remained strong and soon the two were met by an old friend.

Ephesus awakened first from his illness and saw a familiar face standing before him.

“Syphus!” the fisherman cried.

“Yes, my boy.” Syphus replied and embraced his friend.

Ephesus looked around in interest. “What happened?” he asked.

Syphus replied with misty eyes. “You collapsed on the mountain’s summit, Ephesus. I had to bring you here.”

“Where are we?” Ephesus looked around the room, but his head wa swimming so badly could not describe it. But he saw that it was peaceful, safe and warm and light filled the air. “Is Elisa…?”

“She’s waiting for you.” Syphus continued. Ephesus broke out into such a shout of joy that even Syphus was startled.

“I brought you to a better place, Ephesus. Somewhere you both could have your happy ending.”

Ephesus embraced his old friend with a grin. “Thank you.”

But then, the memories of all he had endured came rushing back and tears fell from his eyes. His sobs came strangled from his throat.

“Worry not about the past, my son.” Syphus told him empathetically. “Instead, look forward to your future, my son. You have fulfilled your goal. And your love is waiting.”

Ephesus dressed himself in a white tunic with golden accents and a long flowing white cape, eager to finally look into his lover’s eyes once more. He stood before a door as Syphus recited a couplet: “Ephesus, from Earth to the heavens you’ve endured dark times. Now, walk through the door and claim your prize.”

Elisa who had awakened in a separate chamber and she too saw a good friend: Margaretha.

When her confidant told her what had happened, the princess recalled what her arrogant father had said was false, as she knew it would be. Yet, Elisa too suffered grief for her experience; her cries pierced the empty silence, holding her head in her hands. Elisa was still fearful that Ephesus would not accept her as a lesser version of herself, since regaining her hand was impossible. But Margaretha assured the princess her beloved would look with his heart, not his eyes. Elisa still was eager to meet her champion and was dressed in a splendid white gown and veil. She stood before the same door and the old woman gave her a different couplet: “Elisa, from Earth below you have earned a heavenly bliss. Now, walk through the door and marry your prince.”

The door was opened and the two were thunderstruck.



 

There before Elisa stood her valiant champion in his gleaming silver armor. And before Ephesus stood the beautiful Princess in her glorious white gown. The shaking fisherman bowed before her as she smiled with happiness and curtsied in return.  The glow of candlelight alone illuminated their splendor and Ephesus laid the bag of stones at Elisa’s feet, now changed into rubies and amethysts. Here stood the most grueling test of all. The princess and the fisherman had crossed mysterious boundaries, braved torrentus changes in nature, suffered personal losses and beaten dangerous thrilling trials to reach this moment. But now, they had to speak as equals; their hearts had never beaten so quickly.

“It’s been a long time, Ephesus.” Elisa told him, quivering. She could barely speak, her heart was pounding so fast. “I’ve...I’ve missed you.”

Ephesus’s mouth was so dry he only smiled. But then his heart skipped a beat and he opened his mouth. “I thought of you everyday, Elisa.”

Elisa timidly asked, “How were you...able to fulfill my quest, my champion?”

With his heart pounding, Ephesus replied, “Your Highness, I carried those stones for you. But they were not stones to me. They were the pebbles I scattered across the water in my boat, hoping one day we could be together. Your forest was only a bridge to your heart...a bridge I had to offer a great sacrifice to cross. But it was the right cost, as I received a just reward.” Ephesus then knelt before Elisa and slipped his golden ring onto her finger. She giggled in delight.

“Elisa, your river was merely a puddle I walked through. This mountain was only one more step towards you...a step I would take ten times more.”

Ephesus rose and asked tenderly, “Princess, why did you want to find me?”

Elisa smiled and replied, “Ephesus, I lost my heart to you the first moment I saw you. If we were meant to be together, I wanted to be worthy of your love. But my determination...it made me blind and I paid a heavy price.” Elisa glanced down at her severed arm, which Ephesus tenderly held. She looked back at her beloved.

“But I would have gladly lost my head if it meant being with you. We were fated by the stars to be together.  Ephesus, of course I willaccept your love.”

Elisa stretched out her arms to the hero and Ephesus, holding her close, kissed his bride. The heavens burst open and the earth shook to its core; at last, the mountain that had separated the kingdom from its rulers crashed into nothing. Ephesus and Elisa were flown down from the mountain on the back of a large green dragon with silver wings. The newly freed villagers came together as, side by side, royal and commoner alike helped rebuild the golden palace, which filled with music , laughter and dancing in celebration of the sacred marriage. As Princess Elisa and Prince Ephesus whirled around the ballroom together, the music swooned and the townsfolk cheered. After the ball, the new royal couple entered their palace garden where they planted the magical red seed. It grew into a splendid glowing tree with golden leaves that always gave the village a bountiful harvest, protected forever by the beautiful dragon.

And so, the princess and her fisherman lived happily forever after.

 


© Copyright 2018 Mya Maola. All rights reserved.

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